Global Policy Forum

Analysts Say a Nuclear Iran Is Years Away


By William J. Broad, Nazila Fathi and Joel Brinkley

New York Times
April 13, 2006

Western nuclear analysts said yesterday that Tehran lacked the skills, materials and equipment to make good on its immediate nuclear ambitions, even as a senior Iranian official said Iran would defy international pressure and rapidly expand its ability to enrich uranium for fuel. The official, Muhammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran's atomic energy organization, said Iran would push quickly to put 54,000 centrifuges on line — a vast increase from the 164 the Iranians said Tuesday that they had used to enrich uranium to levels that could fuel a nuclear reactor.

Still, nuclear analysts called the claims exaggerated. They said nothing had changed to alter current estimates of when Iran might be able to make a single nuclear weapon, assuming that is its ultimate goal. The United States government has put that at 5 to 10 years, and some analysts have said it could come as late as 2020.

Iran's announcement brought criticism from several Western nations and to a lesser degree from Russia and China. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for "strong steps" against Iran, using the country's clear statement of defiance to persuade reluctant countries like Russia and China to support tough international penalties. But Russian officials said they had not changed their opposition to such penalties. Nuclear analysts said Iran's boast that it had enriched uranium using 164 centrifuges meant that it had now moved one small but significant step beyond what it had been ready to do nearly three years ago, when it agreed to suspend enrichment while negotiating the fate of its nuclear program.

"They're hyping it," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, a private group that monitors the Iranian nuclear program. Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. al-Rodhan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington called the new Iranian claims "little more than vacuous political posturing" meant to promote Iranian nationalism and a global sense of atomic inevitability.

The nuclear experts said Iran's claim yesterday that it would mass-produce 54,000 centrifuges echoed boasts that it made years ago. Even so, they noted, the Islamic state still lacked the parts and materials to make droves of the highly complex machines, which can spin uranium into fuel rich enough for use in nuclear reactors or atom bombs.

It took Tehran 21 years of planning and 7 years of sporadic experiments, mostly in secret, to reach its current ability to link 164 spinning centrifuges in what nuclear experts call a cascade. Now, the analysts said, Tehran has to achieve not only consistent results around the clock for many months and years but even higher degrees of precision and mass production. It is as if Iran, having mastered a difficult musical instrument, now faces the challenge of making thousands of them and creating a very large orchestra that always plays in tune and in unison.

Yesterday, Mr. Saeedi, the Iranian nuclear official, said Iran was moving rapidly toward its atomic goals. "We will expand uranium enrichment to industrial scale at Natanz," he was quoted as saying by the ISNA student news agency in a reference to Iran's main enrichment facility. Mr. Saeedi said Iran would start operating the first of 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz by late 2006, with further expansion to 54,000 centrifuges. "We have no problem in doing that," he told ISNA. "We just need to increase our production lines."

The news from Iran, which holds 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, has made oil markets very nervous in recent days and contributed to a spike in oil prices to nearly $70 a barrel on Tuesday. Oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange closed at $68.62 a barrel yesterday, just $2 short of their record after Hurricane Katrina.

Since the beginning of the year, the diplomatic crisis has prompted fears that Iran might be tempted to restrict its oil sales, provoking a price jump that would cause economic havoc around the world. Iranian officials have repeatedly said they might use their country's "oil weapon" in a confrontation with the West. But, as is often the case in Iranian politics, such statements were just as rapidly offset by more reassuring comments from the Oil Ministry that Iran would not use its oil exports as a bargaining chip with the West. More realistically, many traders fear that any international penalties against Iran might hurt Iran's oil industry, slow investments, or remove sorely needed barrels from oil-hungry markets.

The Russian stance against penalties highlighted the obstacles Washington faces in its effort to force a halt to Iran's nuclear program. A senior aide to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said yesterday that any effort to employ broad penalties against Tehran would backfire because "Iran's current president will use them for his benefit, and he will use them to consolidate public opinion around him."

The United States is urging members of the United Nations Security Council to approve travel and financial restrictions on Iran's leaders, and administration officials view Russia, which has close trade ties to Iran, as the linchpin of those efforts. Ms. Rice said yesterday that the Security Council must consider "strong steps" to induce Iran to change course. "The Security Council will need to take into consideration this move by Iran," she said about Tuesday's announcement. "It will be time when it reconvenes on this case for strong steps to make certain that we maintain the credibility of the international community."

In Iran on Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in an elaborate ceremony that Iranian scientists had enriched uranium to 3.5 percent — a level of purity that, if enough could be made, might fuel a nuclear reactor. While Iran hailed the step as a first, the nuclear experts said Tehran had in fact been doing periodic enrichment experiments with centrifuges for seven years, since 1999.

Amid the tensions, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrived in Tehran yesterday for talks with Iranian nuclear officials. Despite the provocative nature of Iran's statements, he still held out hope that the government could be persuaded to compromise. "We hope to convince Iran to take confidence-building measures including suspension of uranium enrichment activities until outstanding issues are clarified," Dr. ElBaradei told journalists at the Tehran airport, Reuters reported.

Iran's state-run television was dominated by programs about the atomic claim in what seemed like an organized effort to mobilize public support for the nuclear program. One channel showed a reporter stopping people on the street to ask if they had bought pastry to celebrate the news. Another showed nuclear sites and uranium mines. Television news said schools celebrated the success and rebroadcast the announcement of Iran's president hailing the enrichment step.

While Iran has sharply raised its atomic claims in the past two days, nuclear analysts said it appeared to be roughly where it was expected to be on the road to learning how to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, and still had years of work ahead of it to attain its ambitious goals. Mr. Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said he was not surprised that the Iranians had got a group of 164 centrifuges up and running and had begun to introduce uranium gas into them for enrichment.

"There's still a lot they have to do," he said, to perfect the operation of the cascade of centrifuges. A report that he and his colleagues made public late last month suggested that Iran would need 6 to 12 months to master that process, and Mr. Albright said in an interview that he stood by that rough estimate as accurate.

His March report said Iran had parts for perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 centrifuges beyond the ones already in operation, and that Iran is not likely to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon until 2009 at the earliest. Several Western nations criticized Iran's recent announcements as needlessly provocative. Foreign Minister Jack Straw of Britain said they were "deeply unhelpful," and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Iran was "going in precisely the wrong direction." Russia and China joined the chorus, but their criticisms were qualified.

"For China, we are concerned about the events and the way things are developing," said Wang Guamgya, China's ambassador to the United Nations. But he added, "In spite of this, I believe diplomatic efforts are still under way." In Moscow, a Foreign Ministry spokesman called Iran's push to expand uranium enrichment "a step in the wrong direction." But Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov later tempered that. He inveighed against any possible military action against Iran and advised against a rush to judgment, saying Iran had "never stated that it is striving to possess nuclear weapons."

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