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Spinning Iranís Centrifuges

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: May 23, 2007

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Iran is making progress with its nuclear program, according to the latest report (PDF) by the International Atomic Energy Agency. After short-notice inspections (AP) at Natanz revealed that Iranian engineers were operating 1,300 centrifuges and producing reactor-ready fuel, nuclear experts now predict the Islamic Republic could have as many as three thousand centrifuges installed by midsummer. Once operational, these would be enough to produce fissile material for one nuclear weapon per year. The Iranians previously had technical difficulties spinning the centrifuges at the speeds needed to produce nuclear fuel, but they appear to have solved this obstacle (BBC) and developed “knowledge about how to enrich.” Although Tehran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, Western governments accuse it of seeking the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

The latest developments may alter Western diplomats’ timetables. “The worst-case estimate,” writes Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Science and International Security, in the Canada Free Press, “is that Iran could have a sufficient quantity of HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a nuclear weapon as early as 2008 or 2009.” Yet some American and Israeli experts suggest Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, may have overstated Iran’s nuclear progress to avert further sanctions (Haaretz) from being imposed. Regardless, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, in an interview with the New York Times, envisions a “third set of [UN Security Council] sanctions.” EU and Iranian negotiators will meet on May 31 to discuss the matters (U.S. and Iranian diplomats meet May 27 in Baghdad but the talks will be confined to Iraqi security issues).

Washington demands suspension of Tehran’s enrichment program as a precursor to any direct talks on the nuclear program. “Otherwise…they can simply run out the clock and continue to play a waiting game,” says Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman. But some experts say that given the new facts on the ground and the level of know-how and nuclear progress the Iranians have achieved, a temporary suspension may no longer make sense. “Suspension has been a futile effort,” says CFR’s Charles Ferguson in this new podcast. “It means we would buy some time but does not necessarily mean it would prevent Iran from further mastery.” Or, as ElBaradei told reporters, “From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.” Hence, some Western diplomats say they should focus more now on preventing Iran from opting out of legal frameworks like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

This interactive CFR timeline looks at U.S.-Iranian relations, while this Backgrounder examine U.S. intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute debate the merits of regime change in Tehran in an online debate.

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