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New IAEA Report Shows Iran Nearing Nuclear Breakout Capability

Iran's uranium-enrichment facility near Isfahan (file photo)
For Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the UN nuclear watchdog's latest report shows that Tehran's nuclear program is developing peacefully in line with IAEA regulations.

For nuclear proliferation experts, however, the report sends a different message.

In its February 19 report, the IAEA says that Iran is continuing to enrich uranium, but has slowed down the expansion of its activities. However, the report also says Iran has amassed a total of 1,010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.

That part of the report is "more of a headline," says David Albright, a former UN nuclear weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), "that Iran continues to move toward having a nuclear-weapons breakout capability and would be expected to reach it by the middle of this year."

Weapon Threshold

According to IAEA estimates, Iran had produced 839 kilograms of low-enriched uranium by last November and a further 171 kilograms since then. In total, the IAEA estimates that Iran accumulated 1,010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium by the end of January.

Albright says that such a quantity is sufficient for the production of a single nuclear weapon.

But even if Iran decides to move toward production of a nuclear bomb, UN officials and arm experts say it would face technical obstacles.

Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association in Washington, recently told Britain's "The Guardian" daily that Iran can't divert its low-enriched uranium for bomb making without being easily detected.

Iranian officials have said repeatedly that the country's nuclear activities are entirely peaceful. Yet Tehran has done little to convince the international community of its nuclear goodwill.

The IAEA report says Iran has slowed the process of installing and operating centrifuges, which are a key instrument in the process of enriching uranium. The ISIS's Albright says the reason was probably political rather than technical.

"They have up to 6,000 centrifuges they can operate and they're operating about 4,000 of them," Albright says. "But they continue to build more. So I wouldn't say they've slowed down, I would say they're enriching at a lower level than they could but they're still making progress in making more enriched uranium."

No Cooperation

The IAEA report acknowledges that the nuclear agency has made no substantive progress on a number of issues that give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program.

For example, Iran has failed to cooperate with the nuclear watchdog in clarifying some of Tehran's past technical studies, which the UN agency says could have been tied to nuclear weaponization.

Iran has also failed to give IAEA inspectors access to its Arak heavy-water reactor, which is under construction.

And the report says that Iran has not implemented the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would give the IAEA the right to do snap inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities.

In reaction to the report, the United States said Iran had yet to convince the international community that it has no intention to develop nuclear weapons.

"We view this report as another opportunity lost to resolve international concerns," U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said in a statement.

For his part, Albright believes that the report highlights the need for the United States and Iran to talk to one another.

"We have to be realistic of what the negotiations would be. I don't expect some envoy from the United States to fly to Tehran and sit down with representatives of the supreme leader," Albright says.

"I think negotiations, to be productive, are probably going to be pretty low-key, perhaps even secret, and to explore how to move forward. But I think it's important to start as soon as possible."

Despite several UN resolutions and three sets of sanctions, Iran so far has refused to give up its uranium-enrichment program.

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RFE/RL Iran Report

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.