Middle East & Africa
IRAN NEARS INDUSTRIAL NUCLEAR FUEL PRODUCTION
By Daniel Dombey
Financial Times (UK)
February 19, 2007
LONDON -- Iran has mastered crucial nuclear technology since August and could be as little as six months away from being able to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, the United Nations’ chief nuclear watchdog warned on Monday.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran was overwhelmingly likely to miss a U.N. deadline on Wednesday to suspend enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material.
The IAEA chief will meet Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, on Tuesday; a day later he will issue governments with a report on Iran’s compliance with the U.N.’s demands.
Mr. ElBaradei said Iran had now acquired important technical know-how from running its pilot nuclear program, and that there there was no going back. “You cannot bomb knowledge,” he said.
Since August last year Iran has been using centrifuges at a pilot plant in the town of Natanz to enrich uranium. Although Tehran insists its purposes are purely peaceful, it has refused to halt the process. Both the U.S. and Israel have warned that Iran might reach a “point of no return” in its nuclear program by mastering the technology of uranium enrichment.
Mr. ElBaradei added that U.S. and British intelligence estimates said that Iran was still five to 10 years away from developing a nuclear bomb and warned against “hype” over Tehran’s nuclear progress.
He argued that while the concern that Tehran might acquire technical knowledge about uranium enrichment may have “been relevant six months ago, it is not relevant today because Iran has been running these centrifuges for at least six months.”
The U.N. inspector added, however, that “there’s a big difference between acquiring the knowledge for enrichment and developing a bomb.”
He said Iran could install an industrial scale capacity of 3,000 centrifuges -- enough to begin producing fissile material for a bomb -- within months.
“It could be six months, it could be a year,” he said, emphasizing his desire for negotiations to convince Iran to hold back. “The ideal situation is to make sure that there is no industrial capacity, that there is full inspection [of Iran’s nuclear facilities].”
He added that Iran had already installed a “cascade” of 164 centrifuges in the subterranean facility designed to produce enriched uranium on an industrial scale, and that Iran’s experiments with two further 164-centrifuge cascades in the pilot program were functioning.
In a sign of additional international pressure, Russia was reported by Reuters on Monday as delaying the building of Iran’s first nuclear power plant.
IAEA CHIEF PESSIMISTIC OVER IRAN BREAKTHROUGH
By Daniel Dombey
Financial Times (UK)
February 19, 2007
Mohamed ElBaradei has not given up hope that the U.S. and Iran will one day sit down and negotiate their differences away, but in the much shorter term his prognosis is bleak.
On Wednesday in his capacity as director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, Mr. ElBaradei is due to certify that Iran has failed to comply with U.N. demands to halt sensitive parts of its nuclear program.
“I will continue to make a last ditch effort to try to convince them that it is in their interest to find a way to go into negotiations,” he told the *Financial Times* in an interview in London. “If that doesn’t happen, and I don’t see that it is going to happen overnight, I will have to report negatively.”
He adds, however, that there will still be scope for a diplomatic breakthrough until the week of March 5, when the IAEA board meets and the issue is taken out of his hands.
Mr. ElBaradei makes little attempt to disguise his lack of enthusiasm for the current U.S. drive to impose more sanctions on Tehran and push the Islamic Republic into suspending activity related to uranium enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material.
In December the U.N. Security Council agreed sanctions on the transfer of missile and nuclear technology to Iran, and the issue is set to return to New York after Mr. ElBaradei’s report on Wednesday.
“Our experience without exception is that sanctions alone do not work and in most cases radicalize the regime and hurt the people who are not supposed to be hurt,” he says.
“If you create an environment in which Iran feels isolated, in which Iran is subject to further sanctions, then some of these worst case scenarios could take place, because then you would put the hardliners in the driver’s seat.”
He says such disputes are more difficult to resolve because of the reluctance of established nuclear powers to sign up to non-proliferation measures of their own.
“When you see here in the U.K. the program for modernising Trident, which basically gets the U.K. far into the 21st century with a nuclear deterrent, it is difficult then for us to turn around and tell everybody else that nuclear deterrents are really no good for you,” he says.
In his eyes, the suspension of Iran’s current “research and development” enrichment activities is no longer the real issue. Far more important for him is ensuring that Tehran does not acquire industrial capacity of 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, further limit the work of U.N. inspectors, or leave the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
As for the perpetual rumbles that Washington or Israel might yet contemplate the use of force, “even if [the Iranians] were not going to develop a nuclear weapon today, this would be a sure recipe for them to go down that route . . . Go for the military option and then either you’ll have a repeat of North Korea [which has developed nuclear weapons] or you have a repeat of Iraq, and these are not our greatest achievements as civilized human beings.”
Instead, Mr. ElBaradei has been championing the idea of a “time out” in which both Iran’s nuclear program and the sanctions targeted against it would be put on ice. He has been studiously vague on the details of his proposal, so as, he says, to leave “room for maneuver.”
But he acknowledges that the idea would allow the two sides to act simultaneously, rather than demanding, as the current U.N. resolution does, that Tehran must halt enrichment as a precondition for any further steps.
“It’s just a question of how to get both sides to the negotiating table while saving face,” he says. “The Iranian issue will only be resolved when the U.S. takes a decision to engage Iran directly . . . The nuclear issue is the tip of the iceberg.”