Natanz nuclear facility_311 reuters.
(photo credit: STR New / Reuters)
VIENNA - Iran is still relying on old technology to expand its nuclear program, in what may be a sign it is having difficulties developing modern machines that could speed up production of potential bomb material.
A report by the UN nuclear watchdog last week said Iran was significantly stepping up its uranium enrichment, a finding that sent oil prices higher on fears tensions between with the West could escalate into military conflict.
Israel, has threatened to launch pre-emptive strikes to prevent Iran getting the bomb and Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said Tehran's continued technological progress mean it could soon pass into a "zone of immunity", suggesting time was running out for an effective military intervention.
But, contrary to some Western media reports in the run-up to Friday's International Atomic Energy Agency report, Iran does not yet seem ready to deploy advanced enrichment equipment for large-scale production, despite years of testing.
Instead, the IAEA document showed Iran was preparing to install thousands more centrifuges based on an erratic and outdated design, both in its main enrichment plant at Natanz and in a smaller facility at Fordow buried deep underground.
"It appears that they are still struggling with the advanced centrifuges," said Olli Heinonen, a former chief nuclear inspector for the Vienna-based UN body.
"We do not know whether the reasons for delays are lack of raw materials or design problems," he said.
Iran says it is refining uranium to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants so that it can export more of its oil and gas. The United States and its allies accuse it of a covert bid to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
Tehran often trumpets technical advances in its nuclear program, including the development of new centrifuges - machines that spin at supersonic speed to increase the concentration of the fissile material in uranium.
In mid-February, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran now had a "fourth generation" centrifuge that could refine uranium three times faster than previously.
"Iran unveiled a third-generation model two years ago and then never said more about it," said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
"Now it says it has a fourth-generation model, which is probably a variation of the problematic second-generation machines."
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