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Iran: 'Skepticism In Order' On Claims Of Nuclear Progress

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad inspecting the Natanz nuclear plant on April 8 (epa) President Mahmud Ahmadinejad says Iran is beginning to install 6,000 additional centrifuges to accelerate the pace of its uranium-enrichment program, which could lead to the eventual tripling of Iran's capacity to produce nuclear fuel or -- at higher levels of enrichment -- fissile material for nuclear weapons.

But experts say that Tehran often overstates the achievements of its nuclear program, in part to persuade the United Nations it is too late for sanctions to stop its uranium-enrichment drive. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel asked nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute to assess Iran's progress.

Iran's president made his claim that Iran is ready to begin installing 6,000 more uranium-enriching centrifuges as he marked the country's second annual National Day of Nuclear Technology on April 8. It was a ceremonial occasion, with banners in Tehran congratulating the people on their "glorious nuclear achievement" and mosques holding prayers of gratitude. Given those circumstances, should we take some of what Ahmadinejad said with a grain of salt?

Shannon Kile: Skepticism really is in order, and we have seen this in previous announcements that have been made on the national nuclear technology day, where President Ahmadinejad has made claims, very grandiose claims, that later proved to have been more than a little exaggerated.

[But] I think no one doubts that Iran is moving forward with its uranium-enrichment program and there is a lot of evidence that it is beginning now to install centrifuge cascades at the main fuel-enrichment plant at Natanz, that is, the big underground facility that is designed to eventually hold up to 54,000 centrifuges.

Again, there is evidence for this that the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] inspectors have already seen, so that part of the claim is plausible. I think it is important to keep in mind that the Iranians are nowhere near actually having installed 6,000 centrifuges at the main enrichment plant, but clearly they are moving in that direction.

Doubts About Real Efficiency

RFE/RL: Ahmadinejad said the 6,000 machines would be put into production "after two to three more months of testing," and that this would triple the size of its industrial base for enriching uranium to produce nuclear fuel. That would be a major expansion of its existing capacity based on 3,000 other machines that are installed in an aboveground facility at Natanz. How efficiently are those existing machines operating?

Kile: Based upon the most recent reports from the IAEA director-general to the board, it seems that Iran's centrifuges aren't running particularly well. They seem to have technical problems and they are running at a relatively low capacity compared to what they theoretically could do.

So, they clearly have some technical problems to iron out and that seems to be connected primarily with getting large numbers of cascades [of machines] operating together in parallel. They clearly have made some progress in that area, but they obviously have some distance to go.

RFE/RL: The other claim that Ahmadinejad made is that Iran is moving toward inaugurating a second-generation centrifuge that is "five times more efficient" than the current machines. He seems to be referring to a domestically produced centrifuge dubbed the IR-2 that is an upgrade from Iran's existing P-1 model based on old Pakistani technology. What do we know about this improved centrifuge?

Kile: There is a lot of debate among Western analysts about how much more efficient that centrifuge is going to be. I think there is a general agreement now that that program is probably still at the experimental stage and we would not really expect the Iranians to begin installing the IR-2s in an operational way, that is, where they will actually be used to produce enriched uranium, at this point.

But what it does point to is that the Iranians are moving forward with their technology program and that they are getting closer to mastering more advanced enrichment technologies.

Are Sanctions Working?

RFE/RL: Of course, it is just this mastery of uranium-enrichment technology that the UN sanctions upon Iran are intended to prevent. Have the efforts to isolate Iran from the rest of the nuclear-energy community had much impact upon Iran's efforts?

Kile: The Iranians clearly have made some good progress but they are facing obstacles, and some of the obstacles arise from the fact that they are the subject of a rather comprehensive technology embargo.

And quite frankly, I think that is one of the reasons that Ahmadinejad made the statements that he made yesterday, that not only was Iran showing its defiance at the UN Security Council resolutions that have been imposed on it but it also was trying to signal that the Iranian program is not going to be stopped by commercial technology sanctions and that Iran will proceed with mastering this technology and that, ultimately, technology stewardship for the centrifuges is already in Iran's hands. So, I think there is some degree of political posturing in what Iran had to say yesterday.

RFE/RL: A central point in the UN's showdown with Iran is the argument over just why Tehran wants to master uranium enrichment. Iran says it only is interested in low-level enrichment for nuclear fuel; its critics say Tehran's ultimate goal is to be able to enrich uranium to the high levels needed for nuclear weapons when it wants to. To what extent do the centrifuge capabilities Iran is developing now contribute directly to that kind of "breakout" option for producing fissile material?

Kile: The technology is the same and it is inherently dual-use, so the centrifuges that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel could obviously be used to enrich uranium at a higher level to produce nuclear weapons. And, frankly, going from natural uranium to low-enriched uranium is more difficult than going from low-enriched uranium to high-enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.

But of course, if it is the case, as the Iranians claim, that their program is entirely for peaceful purposes, and the facilities are under IAEA safeguards, that really isn't a concern, per se, at the Natanz facility. I think what people are more worried about is the possibility that Iran may have an undeclared facility somewhere whereby they could divert low-enriched uranium and then enrich that up to weapons-grade levels.

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.