VIENNA â€” Despite suspending sensitive nuclear activities due to Western fears it is seeking to make atomic bombs, Iran has still managed to make progress on its programme but analysts differ on just how far along it has got.
The question is critical, as Iran this month resumed work on part of the nuclear fuel cycle and wants to negotiate further agreement to develop enriched uranium, the reactor fuel that can also be used to make bombs.
Analysis of public comments by Iranian officials, and the views of experts, show an often tortuous cycle of frantic activity on the ground, tough talking and eventually compromise as the West barters to secure guarantees from Tehran that its programme is for peaceful purposes.
In talks with the European Union to obtain trade and other benefits, Iran suspended uranium enrichment in October 2003 followed in November 2004 by all enrichment-related activities.
It broke the total suspension August 8 by resuming uranium conversion work, but has so far held off on enrichment.
Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s top security official before new hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office this month, told the Kayhan newspaper in July that Tehran’s tactics in the past two years had been to secure postponement of any referral to the UN Security Council while using suspension of some work to focus “all our capabilities on other activities.”
The UN could impose sanctions if it believes, as the United States alleges, that the programme is not for peaceful use.
“In reality, we have used the time to alleviate many of our shortcomings,” Rowhani said then.
He said Iran has worked piece-by-piece on the process of converting uranium ore, or yellowcake, into the gas which is refined by centrifuges into enriched uranium.
Iran now has “a significant number of manufactured centrifuges ready for use,” he added.
But David Albright, a Washington-based, non-proliferation analyst, said the suspension had kept Iran from running centrifuges, and failure to master this crucial technology put their whole nuclear capability into question.
Albright, a physicist and former nuclear weapons inspector, pointed to a US assessment that Iran was a decade away from making highly enriched uranium to make an atom bomb as “a judgement of the Iranian centrifuge programme.”
“They have not demonstrated that they can pull this thing together” and have not yet run a 164-centrifuge cascade built at Natanz, Albright told AFP.
“On conversion one can argue that the Iranians have made progress,” he went on. “On centrifuges, they haven’t been able to operate this 164-centrifuge cascade. Until they do, they don’t have a programme.”
Others are less dismissive, however. In Israel, military intelligence chief General Aharon Zeevi told parliament this week that Israel expects Iran to be capable of producing a nuclear weapon within three years, parliamentary sources there said.
Zeevi said a newspaper report of the US assessment may be a deliberate leak to provide cover for inaction on Iran while US forces are bogged down in Iraq.
Separately, an expert close to the UN nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency told AFP: “If you make a flow chart of developing a nuclear programme, you can see what the Iranians have done over the past two years, even while negotiating with the European Union…” Rowhani’s successor as nuclear policy chief, Ali Larijani, has said Tehran will not renounce its resumption of uranium conversion and the European Union must accept Iran going all the way.
The European bloc insists Iran must resume full suspension. Rowhani has made no secret of Iran’s strategy.
“When the activities in Natanz were suspended, we devoted our energy to Isfahan. Now that Isfahan is suspended we are working on other deficiencies. Of course we did not engage in a lot of propaganda about this,” he told Kayhan.
Gary Samore, a non-proliferation analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran resumed activities at Isfahan as it “needs to work out bugs in their conversion process.”
He said the Iranians were apparently having problems removing contaminants.
A non-Western intelligence expert who follows the dossier closely said that during the suspension period, “there was massive activity to fix the failures” in Isfahan.
“It is not likely they will encounter major hitches after their considerable effort to upgrade the systems,” the expert said, adding that Iranian tactics have been to hold off on nuclear work when they did not need it, then force a crisis when they wanted to run specific machines.