- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ignoring overtures for talks from the Obama administration, Iran has continued to build a stockpile of low-enriched uranium and could, within three to six months, convert the material into a nuclear weapon, according to nuclear specialists.

Iran insists that its program at Natanz, south of Tehran, is for peaceful purposes only and that the facility is regularly inspected by the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog. However, according to an analysis of the latest IAEA report on Iran by the Institute for Science and International Security a Washington think tank that focuses on nuclear proliferation Iran produced an additional 329 kilograms (724 pounds) of low-enriched uranium from November through May, a 20-percent improvement in Iran’s capacity to make the fuel.

The IAEA report, also released Friday, said Iran is operating more than 5,000 centrifuges at its declared nuclear facility in Natanz and has a total of more than 1,300 kilograms (2,860 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. This form of uranium is used for civilian power plants but can be further refined to make fuel for weapons. The difference lies in the concentration of a uranium isotope, U-235, whose atoms can be split apart to produce vast amounts of energy. For civilian use, fuel must contain about 5 percent of the isotope; for weapons, more than 80 percent.

Nuclear weapons ‘breakout capability’ is a scenario that involves enriching LEU [low-enriched uranium] to weapon-grade uranium, said the analysis by nuclear specialists David Albright and Jacqueline Shire.

This could be accomplished within three to six months at either the Natanz facility or a clandestine gas centrifuge facility. It provides a measure of Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities. Whether Iran intends to pursue this approach is unknown, the analysis said.

Whether Iran has a clandestine nuclear program is a matter of dispute. The unclassified version of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in December 2007 said Iran had suspended its nuclear weaponization program, which it distinguished from uranium enrichment and the development of ballistic missiles, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

European intelligence services and Israel assert that Iran is operating an active weapons program in secret.

Last month, President Obama appeared to let slip that he also believed the Iranians were seeking a weapon.

I think that pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace is something that is in Israel’s security interests and the United States’ national security interests even if Iran was not pursing a nuclear weapon, the president said after talks at the White House with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister.

In congressional testimony, Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, has said he agrees with the 2007 intelligence estimate.

Iran has proven they can build things in secret, Mr. Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, told The Washington Times. The Natanz facility was kept hidden from nuclear inspectors until its existence was revealed by an Iranian dissident group in 2002. Mr. Albright said the Kalaye Electric laboratory that conducted centrifuge research development in the 1990s was also kept from inspectors.

That said, Mr. Albright maintains that it is still unclear whether Iran had a parallel weapons program. We just don’t know, he said.

The reports of Iranian nuclear advances come as Iran prepares for presidential elections next Friday. The Obama administration is expected to renew calls for negotiations, which have so far been rebuffed, after the Iranian vote. Mr. Obama has said he will review U.S. policy by the end of the year if there is no progress toward a negotiated agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

The IAEA report gave little indication of Iranian cooperation. It said that the Iranians have prohibited inspectors from visiting a heavy water plant in Arak that could potentially produce plutonium another bomb fuel and failed to turn over design information on a planned new facility at Darkhovin, where a reactor is slated to be built.

A second IAEA report released Friday found traces of uranium at a previously undisclosed site in Syria, raising the prospect that the Middle Eastern nation could be preserving nuclear capacity after Israeli jets bombed a fledging North Korea-style reactor in Syria in 2007.

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