Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency have concluded that Iran appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before, according to the agency’s top officials.
The findings may change the calculus of diplomacy in Europe and in Washington, which has aimed to force a suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities in large part to prevent it from learning how to produce weapons-grade material.
In a short-notice inspection of Iran’s main nuclear facility at Natanz on Sunday, conducted in advance of a report to the United Nations Security Council due early next week, the inspectors found that Iranian engineers were already using roughly 1,300 centrifuges and were producing fuel suitable for nuclear reactors, according to diplomats and nuclear experts here. Until recently, the Iranians were having difficulty keeping the delicate centrifuges spinning at the tremendous speeds necessary to make nuclear fuel, and often were running them empty, or not at all.
Now, those roadblocks appear to have been surmounted. ”œWe believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the energy agency, who clashed with the Bush administration four years ago when he declared that there was no evidence that Iraq had resumed its nuclear program. ”œFrom now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”
It is unclear whether Iran can sustain its recent progress. Major setbacks are common in uranium enrichment, and experts say it is entirely possible that miscalculation, equipment failures or sabotage could prevent the Iranian government from reaching its goal of producing fuel on what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasts is ”œan industrial scale.”
The material produced so far would have to undergo further enrichment before it could be transformed into bomb-grade material, and to accomplish that Iran would probably have to evict the I.A.E.A. inspectors, as North Korea did four years ago.
Even then it is unclear whether the Iranians would have the technology to produce a weapon small enough to fit atop their missiles, a significant engineering challenge.
Iran says its nuclear program is intended to produce energy, not weapons.
While the United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution demanding that Iran suspend all of its nuclear activities, and twice imposed sanctions for its refusal to do so, some European nations, and particularly Russia, have questioned whether the demand for suspension still makes sense.
The logic of demanding suspension was that it would delay the day that Iran gained the knowledge to produce its own nuclear fuel, what the Israelis used to refer to as ”œthe point of no return.” Those favoring unconditional engagement with Iran have argued that the current strategy was creating a stalemate that the Iranians are exploiting, allowing them to make technological leaps while the Security Council steps up sanctions.
The Bush administration, in contrast, has argued that it will never negotiate while the Iranians speed ever closer to nuclear-weapons capacity, saying there has to be a standstill as long as talks proceed. In a telephone interview, R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for policy, who is carrying out the Iran strategy, said that while he had not heard about the I.A.E.A.’s newest findings they would not affect American policy.
”œWe’re proceeding under the assumption that there is still time for diplomacy to work,” he said, though he added that if the Iranians did not agree to suspend production by the time the leaders of the largest industrial nations meet next month, ”œwe will move ahead toward a third set of sanctions.”
Dr. ElBaradei has always been skeptical of that strategy, telling European foreign ministers that he doubted the Iranians would fully suspend their nuclear activities, and that a face-saving way must be found to resolve the impasse.
”œQuite clearly suspension is a requirement by the Security Council, and I would hope the Iranians would listen to the world community,” he said. ”œBut from a proliferation perspective, the fact of the matter is that one of the purposes of suspension ”” keeping them from getting the knowledge ”” has been overtaken by events. The focus now should be to stop them from going to industrial scale production, to allow us to do a full-court-press inspection and to be sure they remain inside the treaty.”
The report to the Security Council next week is expected to say that since February 2006, when the Iranians stopped complying with an agreement on broad inspections around the country by the agency, the I.A.E.A.’s understanding of ”œthe scope and content” of Iran’s nuclear activities has deteriorated.
Inspectors are concerned that Iran has declined to answer a series of questions, posed more than a year ago, about information Iran probably received from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer. Of particular interest is a document that shows how to make uranium into spheres, a shape suitable for use in a weapon.
The inspection conducted on Sunday took place on two hours’ notice, a period so short that it appears unlikely that the Iranians could have turned on their centrifuges to impress the inspectors. According to diplomats familiar with the inspectors’ report, in addition to 1,300 working centrifuges, 300 more were being tested and appeared ready to be fed raw nuclear fuel as soon as late this week, the diplomats said. Another 300 were reported to be under construction.
The I.A.E.A. reported more than a week ago that approximately 1,300 centrifuges were in place, but nuclear experts here said that what struck them now was that all the centrifuges appeared to be enriching uranium and running smoothly.
”œThey are at the stage where they are doing one cascade a week,” said one diplomat familiar with the analysis of Iran’s activities, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the information. A cascade has 164 centrifuges, and experts say that at this pace, Iran could have 3,000 centrifuges operating by June ”” enough, if the uranium were enriched further, to make one bomb’s worth of nuclear material every year. Tehran may, the diplomat said, be able to build an additional 5,000 centrifuges by the end of the year, for a total of 8,000.
The inspectors have tested the output and concluded that Iran is producing reactor-grade uranium, enriched to a little less than 5 percent purity. But that still worries American officials and I.A.E.A. experts. If Iran stores the uranium and later runs it through centrifuges for four or five more months, it can raise the enrichment to 90 percent, the level needed for a nuclear weapon.
Some Bush administration officials and some nuclear experts here at the I.A.E.A. and elsewhere suspect that the Iranians may not be driving for a weapon but the ability to have sufficient stockpiles of low-enriched uranium that they could produce a bomb within months of evicting inspectors, as North Korea did in 2003. That capacity alone could serve as a nuclear deterrent.
One senior European diplomat, who declined to speak for attribution, said that Washington would now have to confront the question of whether it wants to keep Iran from producing any nuclear material, or whether it wants to keep it from gaining the ability to build a weapon on short notice.
Continued stalemate, the diplomat said, allows Iran to move toward that ability.
But hawks in the administration say that the only position President Bush can take now, without appearing to back down, is to stick to the administration’s past argument that ”œnot one centrifuge spins” in Iran. They argue for escalating sanctions and the threat that, if diplomacy fails, the United States could destroy the nuclear facilities.
But even inside the administration, many officials, particularly in the State Department and the Pentagon, argue that military action would create greater chaos in the Middle East and Iranian retribution against American forces in Iraq, and possibly elsewhere.
Moreover, they have argued that Iran’s enrichment facilities are still at an early enough stage that a military strike would not set the country’s program back very far. Such a strike, they argue, would make sense only once large facilities had been built.