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Covert Action Suspected in Iranian Nuclear Troubles

(Jul. 23) -A 2005 demonstration outside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility. The Middle Eastern nation's enrichment program has hit technical setbacks possibly caused by international sabotage, according to analysts (Majid Saaedi/Getty Images). (Jul. 23) -A 2005 demonstration outside Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment facility. The Middle Eastern nation's enrichment program has hit technical setbacks possibly caused by international sabotage, according to analysts (Majid Saaedi/Getty Images).

Iran's uranium enrichment work has encountered a number of technical difficulties in the last year, prompting experts to speculate over what role clandestine interference might have played in the troubles, the Financial Times reported yesterday (see GSN, July 22).

The U.N. Security Council and various governments have adopted punitive measures aimed at pressuring Iran to halt uranium enrichment, a process that could produce nuclear-weapon material as well as fuel for civilian applications. Tehran has maintained its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful.

The number of uranium enrichment centrifuges operating at Iran's Natanz complex two months ago had fallen to 3,936, a 20 percent decrease from the previous May, according to International Atomic Energy Agency figures. As of May of this year, 4,592 machines installed at the site were not operating, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog's latest safeguards report.

In addition, the centrifuges in operation were only performing at about one-fifth their possible capacity, Federation of American Scientists analyst Ivan Oelrich said.

“Nothing we know can rule out sabotage and clearly something fishy is going on,” Oelrich said. “But just because there is sabotage does not rule out the possibility that the Iranians are also grossly incompetent.”

One expert in academia attributed the enrichment slowdown to "a concerted intelligence operation which is able to debilitate and set back the Iranian program.”

“It is not foolproof. But a large number of Iranian centrifuges have crashed and up to half have had to be replaced in recent times. This success didn’t happen entirely accidentally,” the expert said.

“The central question in international diplomacy is whether Iran will acquire the bomb or whether Iran will be bombed,” the academic expert added. “This is not a question that Western leaders are having to worry about in the coming weeks and months. This may well be because of the effectiveness of concerted intelligence operations.”

“The U.K., the U.S., the Israelis all want to get companies to help them put bogus equipment into the program,” said David Albright, head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

“The Iranians really don’t make that much; they don’t make vacuum pumps, they don’t make valves, they don’t reverse engineer that well,” Albright added. “So Western suppliers are critical.”

Intelligence services "trace the procurement patterns, they find people shipping, say, a vacuum pump for a centrifuge. Then they put in a gremlin. The thing about centrifuges is that they operate in cascades. So when one goes down, you get a domino effect,” said Michael Adler, a Woodrow Wilson Center analyst who specializes in Iran's nuclear work.

Still, the technical setbacks might also be a result of the decades-old centrifuges Iran has continued to use, analysts suggested. “It is hardly surprising these [machines] break down,” Adler said, “especially given the regime’s ambitions for speedy success."

Some experts, though, contended that computerized manufacturing systems obtained by Iran are playing a greater role in building enrichment components, reducing opportunities for outside powers to sabotage imported parts.

“I strongly deny Iran’s nuclear program is sabotaged. This is a media war to suggest the Islamic Republic is dependent on foreign help,” said Kazem Jalali, a lawmaker on the Iranian parliament’s foreign policy and national security committee. “Our nuclear program is 100 percent localized. We do not need to stretch our hands to the world markets” (Financial Times, July 22).

Meanwhile, European Union ambassadors yesterday approved proposals for new economic penalties against Iran, an EU diplomat told Agence France-Presse (see GSN, July 20).

The draft measures, slated for approval Monday by the bloc's top foreign officials, would reportedly include a ban on sales of arms and ammunition to Iran, along with deliveries of nuclear-related items to the country. They would also prohibit the "sale, supply or transfer of key equipment and technology" for Iranian petroleum or liquefied natural gas-related processing and associated activities. European firms would be barred from providing funds or expertise "to enterprises in Iran that are engaged in the key sectors of Iranian oil and gas industry."

"These sanctions are surprisingly strong," former U.S. State Department nonproliferation official Mark Fitzpatrick said. "They go much further than the U.N. sanctions."

"For the first time Iran will face biting sanctions that will significantly impact its economy," Fitzpatrick said, adding that the measures "could nevertheless give reasons to Iran to go back to the negotiating table."

Top EU diplomats plan next week to press Iran to schedule new negotiations on its nuclear work (Agence France-Presse/Google News, July 22).

International penalties appear to be having an impact but remain far from prompting a shift in Iran's nuclear strategy, the Wall Street Journal said in an analysis published today.

"What we're trying to do is make it clear to the Iranians that there's a cost to continuing down this road," said an Obama administration staffer linked to efforts to penalize the country. "It sharpens the choice for these guys. One way to relieve the pressure is to make a different (nuclear) policy choice" (Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal, July 23).

Efforts to develop Iran's South Pars gas field have fallen behind schedule due to difficulties securing funding and equipment for the projects, the Washington Post reported today. The number of workers at the site has fallen from 100,000 to 20,000, according to the newspaper.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a sanctioned entity, last week ended its involvement in two gas refinery projects in an attempt to avoid further setbacks, industry sources said.

Tehran formally cited "a worldwide drop in demand for the project" in dialing down its ambitions as a natural gas exporter (Thomas Erdbrink, Washington Post, July 23).

Elsewhere, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the Iranian nuclear disputed at a recent meeting, ITAR-Tass reported today (ITAR-Tass, July 23).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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