Stakes rise in US-Iran standoff
As the UN reports substantial progress in Iran's nuclear program and US ships gather in the Persian Gulf, US and Iranian diplomats prepare to meet in Iraq.
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"The report confirms that Iran is moving ahead as fast as it can, to get as many centrifuges in place as quickly as it can," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation specialist at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.Skip to next paragraph
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"They want to get 3,000 centrifuges stood up, so that if they were to get into negotiations, that would be their starting point," says Mr. Fitzpatrick, contacted in Luxembourg. "They would say: 'We won't go beyond 3,000, but we can't dismantle what we already have.' "
White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe called the report a "laundry list of Iran's continued defiance of the international community," saying "it shows that Iran's leaders are only furthering the isolation of [Iranians]."
ElBaradei is under fire by the US and European allies for saying the Western strategy of demanding suspension had been outstripped by Iranian progress.
"We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich," ElBaradei told The New York Times last week. "From now, it's simply a question of perfecting that knowledge."
Still, analysts say that the four-page report leaves many questions. It gives no details about how well the centrifuge cascades are operating or if they work around the clock. The report notes that Iran "agreed to a modified safeguards approach," which includes "unannounced inspections" of the enrichment site at Natanz. The fact that only 264.8 kgs (about 584 lbs.) of uranium hexaflouride (UF6) gas was used indicated that Iran may still be using purer material bought in the past from China – not Iran's homemade UF6.
"Iran has overcome certain barriers, but to suggest, as ElBaradei does, that there is simply nothing that can be done anymore – that Iran has essentially mastered the program, when the IAEA report itself says there is an enormous amount of analysis still to be done – is a stretch," says Levi.
If Iran were to get 3,000 centrifuges working, pushing enrichment to levels required to make a bomb, there would be more hurdles. "Once you start using very highly enriched uranium, you get worried about 'criticality' –about too much stuff getting in one place at the same time, and melting down," says Levi. "So you are likely to start somewhat gingerly, to make sure you've got everything right."
Regarding the IAEA report, "I don't think there is enough data here to say ... it's too late," says Fitzpatrick. "There is still time before Iran can produce HEU for weapons." And the environment has changed since years ago, when Pakistan moved secretly from enrichment technology to a weapon capacity in a decade "because the world was not alert enough to stop the technology flow," he adds.
"I think the world's exporting countries are much more attuned ... and have put on strict controls," he says. "They probably can prevent Iran from getting additional material [from abroad] to expand its program."