Iran denies nuclear “halt” but technical woes slow pace

January 13, 2010
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2nd L) visits the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, 350 km (217 miles) south of Tehran, April 8, 2008.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2nd L) visits the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, 350 km (217 miles) south of Tehran, April 8, 2008.

Iran hastened on Monday to deny an Israeli media report that it had suspended uranium enrichment for two months to mollify Western powers mulling more sanctions against Tehran over suspicions it wants the programme to yield atomic bombs.

But while diplomats agreed there was no evidence of a politically driven suspension, they believe the Haaretz report may be symptomatic of stagnation in the shadowy enrichment programme due to technical problems.

The report’s author was the veteran intelligence correspondent of Haaretz newspaper but it was thin, quoting only “Iranian media sources”, and lacking others to substantiate it.

Diplomats in Vienna, home to the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, also discounted the report. A senior diplomat familiar with IAEA operations said U.N. inspectors noticed no shutdown of enrichment on their latest visit to the underground Natanz complex last week.

A senior European diplomat accredited to the IAEA said a publicly acknowledged nuclear suspension is not politically feasible at this time as it would telegraph Islamic regime weakness in the face of Western pressure as it grapples with persistent street protests over alleged election fraud.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s declared civilian atomic energy programme, told Reuters it was “going on according to plan under (IAEA) supervision…” The foreign ministry blamed alleged disinformation spread by Iran’s arch-adversary Israel.

Reading between the lines of the Haaretz story, diplomats, intelligence and nuclear experts recalled the latest IAEA report on Iran in November which revealed a 20 percent decline in the number of operating centrifuge enrichment machines since June.

In essence, they believe enrichment has not been “suspended” but rather is stagnating or even stalling due to crashes of old, 1970s-vintage centrifuges caused by an over-rapid expansion of the programme in the past two years.

“It would be a surprising and positive development if Iran actually had actually suspended enrichment, but I doubt this is the case,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, top non-proliferation expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“More likely they have stopped or slowed down the installation of additional cascades as they work to overcome the technical problems they have been experiencing with the centrifuges that are already in place.”

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said ISIS tracking of Natanz suggested the performance of the complex had improved steadily until early 2009 when it fell off markedly, and has remained largely flat since.

“Possible causes including many broken centrifuges and wear and tear on others (in the first batches installed) that may be reaching the end of their lifetime, which means Iran did not ensure highest manufacturing quality initially,” Albright said.

“We hear from centrifuge experts that Iran may have scaled up centrifuge numbers prematurely. It should have run a fixed, relatively small number of for an extended period of time to work out bugs and gain necessary experience before scaling up.”

Another reason, he said, could include an increasing Iranian focus on developing the smaller Fordow enrichment site, taking shape in a bunker deep underground to preserve enrichment in case Israel or the United States bomb Natanz. Intelligence experts agree Iran remains at least a few years away from the ability to produce a usable nuclear weapon.

Western officials are concerned about the possibility of Iran hiding further advances at undeclared locations, especially after the belated exposure of a second enrichment near Qom in September, but no such evidence has surfaced.

It has taken a good decade just to achieve limited enrichment far below capacity at the Natanz complex. Iran’s development of faster, more robust “new generation” centrifuges, based on black-market technology, has been slow. Testing of small numbers of advanced models at a pilot plant has been going on for three years.

Another obstacle to Iran’s nuclear expansion aspirations may be the quality and quantity of its uranium ore. The IAEA report pointed to possible shortages when it said Iran’s Isfahan uranium processing centre had not converted any uranium into UF-6 gas for enrichment since August.

The plant was undergoing maintenance as of late October, the report said. Some analysts believe impurities such as molybdenum common in Iran’s uranium ore may be partly responsible for vibrating and overheating that has afflicted the 1970s-vintage centrifuges Iran has deployed in Natanz.

With such technical obstacles restraining Iran’s march to nuclear power status, Russia and China are likely to brake the U.S.-led thrust for wider sanctions by arguing that ample time remains to resolve the standoff with further negotiations.

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