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Tehran's New Centrifuges -- Game Over?

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility that is 350 kilometers south of Tehran in 2008.
Iran upped the stakes in the nuclear crisis when it announced ahead of this week's talks with six world powers that it is installing a new generation of faster, better centrifuges for enriching uranium.

Analysts call the announcement earlier this month a game changer -- if it were to prove entirely true.

"Iran's notice that it would be installing more advanced centrifuges into the large underground facility at Natanz is a worrisome development," Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says. "Iran had indicated that it would be installing as many as 3,000 of these new models. If so, that could be a game changer."

Fitzpatrick adds: "The new models are said to be from two to four times as efficient as the ones that Iran now employs and if they introduce them in large number like this, it could lead to a doubling of capacity for Natanz. The more capacity for enrichment that Iran has, the faster it could spurt to breaking out of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and producing nuclear weapons."

But is Iran bluffing when it says it says it is installing thousands of the new centrifuges? The claim raises doubts because it suggests that Tehran has suddenly resolved all the problems it has had in developing the new machines to date.

Fitzpatrick says those problems are many.

"It's not clear at all whether Iran really could introduce 3,000 of the newer model centrifuges," he says. "Those new models require certain high-strength metals such as marriaging steel and carbon fiber that Iran is not judged to be able to produce in good quality itself. And it is reliant on foreign sources, sources that have largely dried up because of the sanctions pressure Iran has been under."

In The Shadow Of Sanctions

Such doubts raise the possibility that Iran may be heralding the installation of the new centrifuges mostly to strengthen its arguments at the February 26 talks in Kazakhstan. Iran has long maintained that sanctions are having no effect on its nuclear program and therefore are misguided and should be lifted because they hurt ordinary Iranians economically.

But that argument is not likely to gain much traction in Almaty. The world powers are counting on sanctions to press Iran to stop enriching uranium. And, Fitzpatrick says, Iran's timely announcement of more muscular enrichment capabilities is not enough to make them change strategies now.

"This does worry the six powers, but it is not a reason that they will be making immediate concessions," Fitzpatrick says. "It is a reason to keep the engagement track going and to try to make some progress toward persuading Iran to accept limits to its nuclear program and relieve the concerns of the international community."

Iran currently uses both Natanz and its much more heavily protected Fordo facility to enrich uranium to a 20-percent level in addition to the 3 percent level needed for nuclear fuel.

The 20-percent level, useful for medical isotopes, is widely considered to be a short hop technically from the some 90 percent level of enrichment needed to produce nuclear weapons material.