Official and independent analysts said Iran's uranium enrichment program is performing consistently, signaling its recovery following a temporary suspension in late 2010 and a possible computer-based strike, Reuters reported yesterday (see GSN, Feb. 7).
The United States and its allies have for years sought to negotiate curbs on Iran's uranium enrichment work, which they fear is aimed at generating nuclear-weapon material. Tehran has denied its nuclear program has any military component and steadfastly refused to accept limitations to its atomic efforts.
Iran in November paused enrichment work at its Natanz complex. The delay lasted for just a "short period of time" and its cause was uncertain, but enrichment work has since resumed and was "continuing steadily," International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano said last week.
The Persian Gulf nation appeared to have halted transfers of feedstock to its uranium enrichment centrifuges for a maximum of several days, according to diplomats. Tehran has issued no public remarks on the pause.
"This is a very difficult facility to operate," Amano said. The U.N. nuclear watchdog is slated in coming weeks to release its next safeguards report on Iran's atomic activities.
The source of the enrichment suspension has remained subject to debate.
Economic penalties against Iran have hindered its enrichment program by complicating imports of needed components, according to Western officials.
Clandestine U.S. or Israeli efforts to sabotage Iran's nuclear work might have also taken a toll, according to Reuters. Some observers have linked Israel and the United States to development of the Stuxnet computer worm reported to have infiltrated Iranian nuclear facilities (see GSN, Feb.4)
"On the whole, I do have a feeling that the enrichment program is not in fantastic shape," a high-level Western diplomat said. Iran has continued stockpiling low-enriched uranium, though, and "there is no sense that ... that increasing trend is under threat," the official said.
Iran's nuclear efforts have produced a "patchy picture" as its production of low-enriched uranium has fluctuated, the diplomat said. Still, "when the guy has come to read the meter, it keeps on ticking over," the official said.
"If further enriched, the current [Iranian LEU] stockpile would be enough for one or two nuclear bombs," former U.S. State Department nonproliferation analyst Mark Fitzpatrick said. The Middle Eastern nation has produced more than 3 metric tons of low-enriched uranium and is adding roughly 100 kilograms in additional material each month, Reuters reported.
Still, Iran's nuclear difficulties would increase the opportunity for a negotiated settlement of the nuclear standoff, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in an analysis last month.
"Predicting when Iran might obtain nuclear weapons is highly uncertain," the document adds.
Iran is now capable of building a basic nuclear bomb, but it must surmount additional obstacles to produce a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, the report quotes U.N. specialists as saying.
"If Iran built a secret site using more advanced centrifuges, it could be ready to build a bomb as soon as 2012 or 2013," the analysis states (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, Feb. 7).