Friday, January 12, 2007

VIENNA, Austria — Iran’s uranium-enrichment program appears to be stalled despite tough talk from the Tehran leadership, leaving intelligence services wondering why the country has not made good on plans to press ahead with activities that the West fears could be used to make nuclear arms, diplomats said yesterday.

Outside monitoring of Iran’s nuclear endeavors is restricted to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of declared sites, leaving significant blind spots for both the agency and intelligence agencies of member countries.

Still, Tehran’s reluctance to crank up activities at its declared enrichment site at Natanz when it seems to have the technical know-how is puzzling the diplomatic and intelligence communities — with some saying it was potentially worrisome.

Diplomats, accredited or otherwise linked to the Vienna-based IAEA and speaking on the condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing restricted information on the Iranian program, said some intelligence services think the Natanz site is a front.

While the world’s attention is focused on Natanz, Iranian scientists and military personnel could be working on a secret enrichment program at unknown sites with much more advanced technology, they said.

On the other hand, they said the lack of new activity at the two pilot enrichment plants at Natanz could be good news.

The diplomats said the slowdown could suggest Iranian hesitancy to provoke the U.N. Security Council into imposing harsher sanctions than the relatively mild penalties agreed upon last month in response to Tehran’s refusal to heed an August deadline to suspend enrichment.

Or, they said, the hesitation is a sign of headway by relative moderates in the leadership unhappy with the confrontational nuclear antics of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Anthony Cordesman, who studies the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested an additional possibility linked to theories that Tehran was forging ahead with its enrichment program at undisclosed locations: Iranian fear that any major progress at Natanz could provoke military action by Israel or the United States.

“It’s a known facility and more and more of the subject of discussion as a possible Israeli or U.S. target,” Mr. Cordesman said from Washington. “So, do you use this facility now or wait to see what threat … you face?”

IAEA inspectors arrived at Natanz on Wednesday for a routine round of monitoring. But one of the diplomats said they were unlikely to find anything but the status quo — two small pilot plants assembled in 164-centrifuge “cascades” but working only sporadically to produce small quantities of non-weapons-grade enriched uranium and other individual centrifuges undergoing mechanical testing. That has essentially been the situation at Natanz since late November, he said.

There have been no signs of any activity linked to Iranian plans to assemble 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz and move them into an underground facility as the start of an ambitious program that would have 50,000 centrifuges producing enriched material, said the diplomats.

Enrichment can result in either low-level nuclear fuel or the highly processed fissile core for nuclear weapons.

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