Thursday, April 13, 2006

Concerns Mount Over Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

Carla Anne Robbins, The Wall Street Journal:
The Bush administration called for "strong steps" to halt Iran's nuclear program, but there is growing anxiety in the U.S. and Europe that Tehran's technical mastery is far outpacing diplomatic efforts to stop it.

Two years of European-led negotiations and a threatened showdown with the United Nations have barely slowed Iran's drive to enrich uranium, usable for either nuclear fuel or potentially a nuclear weapon.

An official Iranian timeline, described privately to European officials last spring, set June 2005 as the latest date for Iranian scientists to resume producing uranium feedstock, to be followed by the resumption of enrichment before the end of last year. Tehran restarted uranium-gas production in early August -- only slightly behind schedule -- resumed enrichment efforts in January and announced this week that it is successfully running a small cascade of 164 centrifuges.

Yesterday, Iran's deputy nuclear chief announced that his country had informed United Nations nuclear inspectors that it would start installing 3,000 centrifuges before the end of 2006 at its Natanz facility, with 54,000 as its ultimate goal. Iranian officials insist that they have no weapons ambitions and are solely interested in producing nuclear fuel for their still-unfinished reactor at Bushehr.

Iran faces serious technical hurdles before it can claim to have mastered enrichment. It must prove that it can keep the delicately balanced machines running continuously for many months, and it must build more centrifuges and larger cascades. Experts estimate that Iran would need to run 1,500 centrifuges continuously for nearly a year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb.

The U.N.'s top inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, was due in Tehran last night, and diplomats said he would try to persuade Iran that, having proved its technical competence, it could now suspend enrichment and return to the negotiating table. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Mr. ElBaradei yesterday to urge him to take a tough line in his meetings.

In late March, the U.N. Security Council issued a nonbinding statement demanding that Iran halt all enrichment-related activities by the end of April and called on Mr. ElBaradei to report on Iran's compliance at that time.

Diplomats said yesterday senior representatives from the Security Council's Permanent Five -- the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China -- plus Germany will meet in Moscow next week to discuss Iran's latest actions. When debate resumes at the council in late April, the U.S. and its European allies are expected to press for a so-called Chapter VII resolution that would carry at least an implicit threat of punishment for Iran.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Ms. Rice said the Council will have to take "strong steps to make certain that we maintain the credibility of the international community."

So far, Russia and China have resisted discussing even limited sanctions. But U.S. officials appear ready to force the issue, challenging Moscow and Beijing to veto a resolution. U.S. officials say they don't believe either would do so, especially if Tehran remains defiant and the threatened punishments are limited. READ MORE

One proliferation expert who has been in contact with Iranian representatives, said yesterday that Tehran may be ready to consider some compromise. Tehran may offer to curb, but not halt, its enrichment efforts -- running the 164-centrifuge cascade without adding more -- while they resume negotiations with the Europeans.

U.S., British and French officials would likely oppose such a deal as simply another effort by Iran to buy time while its scientists perfect their technology. The Russians and Chinese might seize on it as a way to postpone a confrontation.

Write to Carla Anne Robbins at