VIENNA - Iran is installing more centrifuges in an
underground plant but does not yet appear to be using them to expand
higher-grade uranium enrichment that could take it closer to producing
atom bomb material, Western diplomats say.
They say Iran's production of uranium refined to a fissile concentration
of 20 percent, which it started two years ago, seems to have remained
steady in recent months after a major escalation of the work in late
2011 and early this year.
Progress in Iran's controversial nuclear program is closely watched by
the West and Israel as it could determine the time the Islamic Republic
would need to build nuclear bombs, should it decide to do so.
Getting Iran to stop the higher-level enrichment is expected to be a
priority for world powers when they meet with Iran in Baghdad next week
in an attempt to start resolving the decade-old dispute over Tehran's
"It is still going strong. I hear it is unchanged," one diplomat
accredited to the UN nuclear watchdog, which regularly inspects Iran's
declared atomic sites, said about the country's most sensitive nuclear
"But with installation work going on, at some point there will be an increase."
Tehran took a big step towards the capability of making nuclear weapons
material after a previous attempt at diplomacy failed when, spurning
UN demands to halt all enrichment, it instead ramped up uranium
processing to 20 percent purity.
That provoked the West to impose crushing sanctions on its banks and oil exports.
A UN nuclear report published in February showed Iran trebling output
of 20 percent uranium since late 2011 after starting up production at
the Fordow underground plant near the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom
and later increasing it.
Another envoy said he did not expect to see a "significant expansion" of
this work in the next quarterly report by the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran's nuclear program due later this month.
But installation of machines has continued, the diplomat said, referring
to the centrifuges which spin at supersonic speed to increase the
fissile isotope in uranium. Typically a set of 174 centrifuges is needed
for one production unit.
A third Vienna-based diplomat painted a similar picture.
Nuclear bombs require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but much of the
effort required to get there is already achieved once it reaches 20
percent concentration, shortening the time needed for any nuclear
Israel - widely believed to hold the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal -
and the United States have not ruled out military action to prevent
Iran from obtaining atomic arms if negotiations fail to achieve this
Iran has steadily increased uranium enrichment since 2007 and now has
enough of the 3.5 and 20 percent material for some four bombs if refined
further, experts say. The lower-grade uranium is the normal level
required for nuclear power plants.
Tehran denies Western accusations of a nuclear weapons agenda and says
it has a sovereign right to peaceful nuclear technology, repeatedly
rejecting UN resolutions calling for a suspension of all uranium
But it has at times appeared more flexible when it comes to the
refinement to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, which it says it
needs to fuel a medical research reactor in Tehran.
Experts say that initially getting Iran to stop this work could open a way to ease the deadlock.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Iran should take steps to "build confidence" in its nuclear activities.
"In particular Iran should take early action to address the concern
about its production of 20 percent enriched uranium," Hague told
parliament this week.
Britain, the United States, France, Russia, China and Germany are the
six powers involved in diplomacy aimed at resolving the long-running row
over Iran's atomic plans, which has stoked fears of a new Middle East
Many analysts believe it may be unrealistic to demand that Iran suspend
all enrichment as its leaders have invested so much national and
personal prestige in the project.
In return for allowing limited, low-level enrichment, those analysts
argue, Iran would need to accept much more intrusive UN inspections to
make sure there is no military diversion of its nuclear program.