- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 10 (UPI) — The image of an Iranian nuclear plant, released Monday by a Washington-based nuclear watchdog, shows that Iran is already operating a small pilot centrifuge plant.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday that Iran has a more developed nuclear weapons program than previously been thought.

His comments followed a report in Time magazine that a nuclear power facility at Natanz in central Iran was close to producing enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear arms. The United States and its allies learned about Natanz only seven months ago.

Last month Iran unveiled plans for an ambitious nuclear energy program but insisted it had no intentions to make nuclear weapons.

Washington has branded Iran an "axis of evil" member along with Iraq and North Korea and says it has a secret nuclear weapons program.

Despite Iran's claim that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, the satellite image of the Natanz nuclear facility shows that Iran is already running a small pilot centrifuge plant there.

The image, released Monday by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, was taken on Feb. 7.

It also provides other details of the facility where Iran is building a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported last month that Iran said no uranium has been introduced into the pilot plant.

The image also shows underground buildings under construction to house the main centrifuge cascades.

A comparison with a September 2002 image — also released by ISIS — shows that a considerable amount of additional construction has occurred at the site.

An earlier picture, released by the National Council of Resistance in Iran, showed 160 newly minted centrifuges, which were tested and judged fully operational.

A State Department official told United Press International that while he would not like to comment on the latest information provided by the Iranian opposition group, "similar information from this group in the past have proven correct."

Media reports quoting senior U.S. officials say that the centrifuges can start processing uranium as early as September this year, turning hot uranium gas into nuclear fuel.

Pictures released by nuclear watchdogs and Iranian opposition groups also show workers assembling 1,000 more centrifuges. Experts say that when finished, the Natanz facility will have a constellation of 5,000 machines, which will form part of a vast uranium enrichment plant.

Iran hopes to complete this complex, which will allow it to produce enough uranium for several nuclear bombs each year, in 2005.

"Here we suddenly discover that Iran is much further along, with a far more robust nuclear weapons development program than anyone said it had," Powell said in a string of interviews to U.S. television channels on Sunday.

But national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the report that Iran has been trying to acquire nuclear weapons was no surprise to Washington.

"It's been couched as a peaceful program. But we've been for a long time one of the lone voices that has said that the Iranians are a problem," she told ABC News on Sunday.

Time magazine quoted diplomatic sources as saying work on the Natanz plant "is extremely advanced."

It said the plant involves "hundreds" of gas centrifuges ready to produce enriched uranium that could be used in advanced nuclear weapons and "the parts for a thousand others ready for assembly."

The world first knew of the plant in last August from a report released by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Since the council is associated with the Iraq-based Mujahedin-e-Khaliq, the U.S. State Department treats it as part of a foreign terrorist organization.

This initially prevented the U.S. administration from taking this report seriously — but later, its own research proved the existence of an under-construction nuclear plant at Natanz, about 200 miles south of the Iranian capital, Tehran.

Since then, U.S. officials take the council's reports much more seriously, admitting that the information provided by the group was "often credible," as a State Department official told UPI.

U.S. officials say that Iran already has much of the other knowledge and technology needed to become a nuclear weapons state. It possesses an arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles and is also working on improving its missile technology.

But rejecting reports about its nuclear program as "totally incorrect," Iran agreed Saturday to provide early information about plans to build new nuclear facilities.

President Mohammad Khatami said his country meant to develop its nuclear industry in line with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would further cooperate with the IAEA.

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