Senior IAEA official to visit Iran

Questions over Iran's nuclear program as watchdog agency returns to the country.

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With a senior International Atomic Energy Agency official (IAEA) slated to visit Tehran on Wednesday, the organization's director, Mohamed ElBaradei, has said the trip could lead to a "major breakthrough." Yet on the eve of the IAEA's arrival in Iran, the US media carried contradictory accounts of the status of the country's nuclear efforts.

Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's No. 2, arrives in Tehran on Wednesday for two days of meetings in which he expects Iranian officials to present information that will help settle the question of whether the country's nuclear program is simply to produce energy, as Iran asserts, or if it's also moving toward building a nuclear bomb, Reuters reports.

[T]he United States and EU allies wonder whether Iran's offer of transparency is more than a time-buying gambit designed to avert further sanctions against what Western powers suspect is a bomb making program in disguise.
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The watchdog wants explanations for traces of highly enriched – bomb-grade – uranium found on some equipment.
It also wants to know more about experiments with plutonium, the status of research into an advanced centrifuge able to enrich uranium three times as fast as the model Iran now uses, and documents showing how to cast uranium metal for a bomb core.

On Monday, Mr. ElBaradei said Iran has slowed down the rate at which it's adding uranium enrichment capacity at its nuclear site in Natanz, the Associated Press reports.

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While expressing hope that Iran might go as far as totally freezing enrichment — as demanded by the U.N. Security Council — ElBaradei told reporters that there had been a "marked slowdown" in centrifuges on line and in using them to turn out enriched uranium.

But while such recent statements represent a slight easing of the rhetorical pressure on Iran, a report in The Washington Post implies that Iran is seeking to protect as much of its nuclear facilities as possible against a possible attack with an expanded network of underground tunnels.

The sudden flurry of digging seen in recent satellite photos of a mountainside in central Iran might have passed for ordinary road tunneling. But the site is the back yard of Iran's most ambitious and controversial nuclear facility, leading U.S. officials and independent experts to reach another conclusion: It appears to be the start of a major tunnel complex inside the mountain.
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"The tunnel complex certainly appears to be related to Natanz," said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington-based nonprofit group that provided copies of the photos to The Washington Post. "We think it is probably for storage of nuclear items."
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A tunnel complex would reduce options for a preemptive military strike to knock out Iran's nuclear program, according to U.S. officials who closely follow Iran's nuclear activities. It also could further heighten tensions between the Bush administration and the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said he is committed to pursuing a peaceful use of nuclear power

In a report (PDF) on the ISIS website, Mr. Allbright and his colleague Paul Brannan argue that such tunneling may well be effective in protecting key nuclear facilities from attack. The report also carries the satellite photographs in question.

Iran earlier built a tunnel complex near the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility to protect a range of nuclear-related equipment and materials ... Iran may be constructing a similar facility near Natanz, fearing that the underground halls at Natanz are vulnerable to destruction by military attack. Such a tunnel facility inside a mountain would offer excellent protection.

The Jerusalem Post quotes a former head of research for Israeli intelligence as saying that time for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is running out.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of Military Intelligence's Research Division ... who stepped down from his post last year, [said] Iran is "very close" to the point that it will cross the technological threshold and have the capability to enrich uranium at an industrial level. Once they master the technology, the Iranians will have the ability to manufacture a nuclear device within two to three years, he added.
"The program's vulnerability to a military operation is diminishing as time passes," Kuperwasser said, "and they are very close to the point that they will be able to enrich uranium at an industrial level."

Though Iran continues to insist it is only interested in pursuing nuclear power for peaceful purposes, a new poll of Iranians finds that a small majority would like the country to acquire nuclear weapons if the US doesn't make guarantees that it won't attack, reports the Associated Press.

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