Iran Moving Full Steam Ahead with Nuclear Program

International nuclear inspectors will soon report that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and may also be speeding up production of nuclear fuel while negotiations with the United States and its allies have ground to a near halt, according to diplomats and experts briefed on the findings.

Almost all of the new equipment is being installed in a deep underground site on a military base near Qum that is considered virtually invulnerable to military attack.  It would suggest that a boast by senior Iranian leaders late last month ”” that the country had added upward of 1,000 new machines to its installation despite Western sabotage ”” may be true.

The report will also indicate, according to the officials familiar with its contents, that Iran is increasingly focused on enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent ”” a purity that it says it needs for a specialty nuclear reactor that it insists is used only for medical purposes, but that outside experts say gets it most of the way to the level needed to produce a workable nuclear bomb.  The report does not attempt to address the question of whether Iran has made a decision to build a nuclear weapon; American intelligence officials believe it has not, and Iran insists it wants to use nuclear power for peaceful ends.

It is unlikely that Iran has begun to use the new centrifuges to produce fuel, and even with a significant increase in fuel production it would still take months, at the least, to produce a crude weapon. By most American government estimates, Iran would need at least two years to develop a workable warhead that could fit atop a missile.

Nonetheless, the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s experts, first reported by Reuters, is likely to renew the debate over Iran’s intentions at a time when Israeli officials are stepping up their warnings that the window to conduct a pre-emptive military strike is closing.

A faction led by Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, will almost certainly argue that Iran has moved closer to what Mr. Barak calls a “zone of immunity,” a point at which so much equipment is installed in the underground facility, called Fordow, that it will soon be too late for Israel to stop Iran from producing a weapon, should it choose to do so.

“This will stir more discussion of how much time is left for diplomacy,” Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency, and now a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Thursday. “Even if the new centrifuges are not operating yet, a thousand new ones would represent a 20 percent increase ”” and an increased production level will be a red line for many people.”

It may also make it harder to win a diplomatic deal.  Under an offer that the United States and its Western allies, along with Russia, presented to Iran privately in late spring, Tehran would be allowed to retain some enrichment capability if it turned over its entire stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium and answered the questions posed by international inspectors about evidence that it has worked on a weapon.  Though Iranian officials have privately expressed some interest in the plan, the deal has gone nowhere, and no new negotiating sessions are scheduled, American officials say.

“For now, the talks are dead in the water,” one senior official said Thursday.

But the report, expected to be the last by the I.A.E.A. before Election Day, will lay out a stark reality: Despite increasingly painful sanctions, and a covert program called Olympic Games that aimed to slow the Iranian program with cyber attacks, Iran has made substantial progress in producing enriched uranium in recent years ”” from about one bomb’s worth when Mr. Obama took office in 2009 to the equivalent of about five bombs worth today.

But the fuel would require considerable additional enrichment before it was usable in a weapon, and even then, Mr. Obama and others have insisted, the United States would almost certainly have considerable notice, and time to act, before Iran developed a usable nuclear weapon.  On this point, the Israelis disagree.  The critical question likely to be prompted by the I.A.E.A. report, which could be published as soon as Wednesday, comes down to this: How much closer is Iran to gaining a nuclear weapons “capability” ”” that is, the ability to produce a bomb on relatively short notice?

But Israeli officials have made it clear that they have found the reassurances less than convincing, and suggested they might act even if the limits of Israel’s military power may mean the Iranian program would be delayed by only two years or so. Many in Israel’s military and intelligence establishments have argued that this is not the time for an attack, and the recently retired chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force, Gabi Ashkenazi, added his voice on Wednesday to the former officials urging Mr. Netanyahu to look for other options, from further sanctions to additional covert action.

The Israeli case that the West may not be able to detect Iran’s progress could be fueled by another element of the forthcoming report, detailing efforts by Iran to clean up a long-suspected nuclear site called Parchin on the outskirts of Tehran.

It is at that site that the agency, based on interviews with at least one scientist and intelligence reports provided by Western powers, suspects Iran may have conducted weapons-related testing. But satellite imagery suggests that Iran has spent months cleaning up the site, even carting away topsoil. Diplomats believe that by the time I.A.E.A. inspectors are permitted to visit ”” if such a visit is allowed ”” whatever evidence was there could have been eradicated.

Source:  New York Times