Iran prepares to increase nuclear-fuel production

By David E. Sanger and William J. Broad
New York Times / July 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Eight months after he narrowly survived an assassination attempt on the streets of Tehran, Fereydoon Abbasi, the nuclear physicist whom Iran’s mullahs have put in charge of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, is presiding over what intelligence officials in several countries describe as an unexpected quickening of Iran’s production of nuclear material.

The selection of Abbasi this year was itself a clear message to the West. As a university scientist, he was barred from traveling outside Iran by the UN Security Council because of evidence that his main focus was on how to build nuclear weapons rather than power plants. But in recent weeks he has publicly declared that his country is preparing to triple its production of a type of nuclear fuel that moves it far closer to the ability to produce bomb-grade material in a hurry.

Filtering out the hyperbole surrounding recent proclamations about Iran’s tangible progress is always difficult, especially at a time when the country is determined to show that neither the Stuxnet computer worm, which crippled part of its nuclear infrastructure last year, nor Western sanctions have proved to be more than modest setbacks. Abbasi is rarely seen or heard outside of Iran.

But international nuclear inspectors and American officials say that all the evidence points to the imminent installation of centrifuges at an underground nuclear plant on a military base near the city of Qum. Iran revealed the existence of the plant in 2009 after learning that the United States and European powers were about to announce that they had discovered the complex, deep inside the Iranian base.

What concerns inspectors and European and US officials is Iran’s announced effort to increase production of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent purity. Iran insists that it needs that fuel for a medical research reactor. But last week William Hague, the British foreign minister, dismissed that assertion as a cover story.

“When enough 20 percent enriched uranium is accumulated at the underground facility at Qum,’’ Hague said in the opinion pages of the British newspaper The Guardian, “it would take only two or three months of additional work to convert this into weapons-grade material.’’

Outside analysts note that during Abbasi’s brief tenure, in Iran’s top leaders have focused on showing that they have overcome multiple setbacks, inflicted by what they suspect to have been covert actions by the United States and Israel, and broad economic sanctions.

“The evidence is there that they are accelerating,’’ said Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran specialist and the director of the nonproliferation and disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They have increased the production of uranium, they have increased the number of centrifuges they have spinning, they are putting in a larger number of second-generation centrifuges.’’

Senior Obama administration officials with access to the intelligence say they concur with that assessment, but they do not sound alarmed. They argue that Iran’s continued reliance on an older, unreliable centrifuge model shows that it is having trouble making the leap to more sophisticated and efficient models. “They’ve talked about moving up the line for years, before Abbasi got the job,’’ said one senior official.

The White House’s recent silence is notable because President Obama built much of his Middle East policy, before the recent Arab uprisings, on organizing other countries in the region to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. The administration commented on the most recent Iranian announcements only when asked.

“Iran is prohibited from installing or operating any centrifuges as a result of the UN sanctions that have been imposed upon it,’’ Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said when asked about Abbasi’s recent announcements. “Provocative behavior of this sort reinforces the need for countries to implement fully their international sanctions obligations with respect to Iran.’’ top stories on Twitter

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