Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Diplomats Say Iran Laying Groundwork for Uranium Enrichment

On the eve of crucial nuclear talks with Iran, diplomats say Tehran is already laying the groundwork for uranium enrichment, and may even be secretly making parts for sophisticated P2 centrifuges. "The Iranian National Security Council is at this very time deliberating exactly when enrichment is to be resumed," a diplomat told AFP.

Enriched uranium can fuel nuclear power plants or be used in atom bombs, and the ability to produce it is considered a "breakout capacity" for making nuclear weapons.

The diplomat, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the information, says Iran has not stopped making parts for centrifuges, which, arranged in cascades, spin uranium gas to distill out uranium that is highly enriched with the U-235 isotope. READ MORE

An Iranian diplomat said this assertion -- also voiced by Iranian opposition groups -- was "not true, not yet."

He said however that "Iran has the capacity to make P2 centrifuges."

A Western diplomat said that if Iran was "taking the incremental step" to make centrifuges it would be almost as significant as enrichment itself.

Iran and the European Union are to meet in Vienna on Wednesday to discuss re-starting formal negotiations on obtaining guarantees that Tehran will not make nuclear weapons.

The Europeans demand that Iran maintain a suspension of "all enrichment-related" activities including making centrifuges, according to an agreement reached in Paris in 2004.

The West sees uranium enrichment as a red flag issue that could prompt Iran's referral to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, while the Islamic Republic insists on its right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for what it says is a peaceful nuclear program to generate electricity.

Diplomats said that even if talks go well, they expect Iran to say that work with centrifuges short of actually enriching uranium does not violate the freeze.

"Iran serially produces and assembles centrifuge parts. Production has continued without interruption ever since this capability was acquired," the first diplomat said.

The diplomat said Iran was making centrifuges in military workshops which "do not come under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards, and Iran has not declared all these parts."

Another diplomat from a member state of the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors said the agency, which has been investigating Iran for almost three years, does not "have a clue" what Iran is up to at its military workshops.

"Iran has the machine tools to enable them to churn out many P2 centrifuges a day, and the IAEA would have no idea," the diplomat said.

IAEA officials refused to comment.

The diplomat said there was "suspicion and concern" about "lots of activity at military workshops like Mashhad, Moborakeh and Nobonyad."

It is not clear how the EU would react if Iran resumed enrichment activities that stopped short of actually putting feedstock gas into centrifuges.

The EU has apparently accepted that Iran is converting uranium ore into the feedstock gas, even though the conversion work forced the breakdown of EU-Iran talks last August.

Research and development in enrichment "is indeed the key phrase, and conceivably Iran's strategy is to secure Europe's agreement to engage in R and D," the first diplomat said.

The diplomat said the Iranians hoped to inch their way towards acceptance of their enrichment activities, as they did with conversion, and might initially propose running a small, pilot centrifuge cascade in Natanz "without feeding gas into the centrifuges."

Non-proliferation expert David Albright, head of a think tank in Washington, said that running a cascade, even if only as a test using air, would help "see if vacuum seals hold and work out other major problems."

"You don't want Iran to start running cascades because the question then is, once they've started, can you get them to back down?" Albright said.