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Why West struggles to rein in Iran's nuclear program

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is set to attend the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference next week in New York. Sanctions have slowed – but not arrested – Iran's nuclear program.

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"If Iran is now producing 20 percent enriched uranium ... frankly, they would be able to take that up to [weapons-grade] 90 percent within one month," far faster than an IAEA quarterly review could detect it, says Mr. Kile. And even with the no-notice inspections provided under the NPT's Additional Pro­tocol (which Iran no longer observes), "there are ways that a country can operationally hamper, limit, and restrict the IAEA's investigative authorities," he adds. "There really needs to be a comprehensive review of the statutory authority of the IAEA to go in and investigate where there is credible evidence to suspect" that a nonnuclear state is developing atomic weapons.

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That issue is likely to rank high on the agenda at the NPT review, slated to begin May 3 in New York. But few expect IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano to be granted greater power.

Since the Security Council first imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006 and insisted that Tehran stop enrichment activities, Iran has increased the pace of enrichment and promised to expand its program. Still, experts say that US-led unilateral measures to undermine Iran's nuclear program have taken a toll.

"There is pretty broad agreement that if, at some point, Iran is determined to have the bomb, it will," says Michael Levi, a nonproliferation specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "What we have also learned is that we are much better at severely slowing states down by interrupting their procurement efforts than we thought.... Now Iran's program is just not progressing as quickly as people assumed it would, because we've made it extremely difficult for them to get the materials they need."

Centrifuge explosions several years ago at Iran's main Natanz enrichment facility have been attributed to sabotage, as has the blocking of key components from places like Ukraine. The last IAEA report on Iran in February noted that of 8,610 centrifuges installed at Natanz – in a facility designed a decade ago to house more than 50,000 – only 3,772 were actually in use.

Iran has also complained in the past year that some of its nuclear scientists have "disappeared" during trips abroad, and charged that they ended up in US custody.

"When you look at efforts like that," says Mr. Levi, author of the 2007 book "On Nuclear Terrorism," "you can't just look at the successes, but at what Iran might not be doing.... When you think that your scientists are going to be bought off for information, you keep information much more closely, and you can't run your program as effectively." Levi says Iran has still made "significant advances" in recent years and that it remains an "open question" about whether Iran will go for a weapon.