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    Middle East
     Sep 8, 2007
Iran spinning centrifuges - and half-truths
By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - Iran's unexpected agreement with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, to resolve old issues surrounding its nuclear program in less than two months, and the fact that it has installed only two-thirds of the centrifuges previously announced, indicate that Tehran may be positioning itself for another bid for a diplomatic solution.

The IAEA report circulated to board members last week, which is still unpublished but has been leaked to the press, says only

2,000 centrifuges have been activated. In mid-2006 and again in January, Iranian officials had said they planned to have a 3,000-centrifuge cascade spinning by some time last spring.

Iran had told IAEA nuclear inspectors in April that more than 1,300 centrifuges were already in operation, but the pace has slackened since then. In an interview with Der Spiegel published on September 3, ElBaradei admitted that both technical difficulties and political considerations could have been factors in the shortfall. But he said, "My gut feeling tells me that Iran has responded positively to my repeated demands that it scale back the program."

Gas centrifuges are used in uranium enrichment. The heavier isotope of uranium (uranium-238) in uranium-hexafluoride gas tends to concentrate at the walls of the centrifuge as it spins, while the desired uranium-235 isotope is extracted and concentrated with a scoop selectively placed inside the centrifuge. It takes many thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium enough for use in a nuclear reactor (about 3.5% enrichment), and many thousands more to enrich it to atomic-bomb-grade (about 90% enrichment).

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced this week that Iran had actually achieved the goal of 3,000 operational centrifuges. That was obviously aimed at appealing to his own domestic base of people who regard the uranium-enrichment program as a matter of national pride.

But as Peter Beaumont, foreign-affairs editor of The Observer in London, reported in January, Western diplomats and technical experts have long been "extremely doubtful that Iran has yet mastered the skills to install and run" such a large cascade of centrifuges.

Iranian officials are well known for always looking for bargaining chips, and a centrifuge target that Tehran knew it could not actually achieve any time soon nevertheless gave Iran potential leverage in any future negotiations with the IAEA - and particularly its most powerful member, the United States - on its nuclear program. It also allowed Iran to appear responsive to ElBaradei's pleas to slow down the program.

Iranian willingness to reach formal agreement in three separate meetings with ElBaradei in July and August to resolve all remaining issues on its past nuclear research by November was clearly aimed at moving the Iran nuclear dossier from the United Nations Security Council back to the IAEA and averting a military confrontation with the US.

Based on Iran's own previous offers, such a deal would involve a guarantee against any nuclear-weapons program through an intrusive inspection regime, in return for an approved enrichment program limited to a number of centrifuges well short of what would be required to produce nuclear weapons.

In the brief 2005 negotiations with the European Union Three (EU-3 - Britain, France and Germany), Iran submitted a formal proposal offering to negotiate a mutually acceptable ceiling on the number of centrifuges at Natanz, which would be producing low-enriched uranium that could not be used to make weapons, and "continuous on-site" inspection by IAEA nuclear specialists at all facilities to provide "unprecedented added guarantees". The EU-3 refused to discuss the proposal with Tehran.

In May 2006, the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rohani - who had been Khamenei's top nuclear negotiator - offered a similar plan in a Time magazine essay.

Rohani wrote that Iran agreed to negotiate with the IAEA and "states concerned" on the "scope and timing of its industrial-scale uranium enrichment" and accept a "verifiable cap on enrichment limit of reactor-grade [ie, low-enriched] uranium". He repeated the earlier proposal's acceptance of a "continuous presence of inspectors" to verify that no diversion takes place.

Finally, Khamenei's representative offered to "consider" ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol, which would require "intrusive and snap inspections".

The argument that Iran cannot be allowed to have any uranium enrichment assumes that a sufficient number of centrifuges by itself would allow Iran to have the capability to build nuclear weapons. News media have routinely repeated the statement that 3,000 centrifuges could enrich enough uranium to make a bomb, provided the machines run for the requisite periods.

But ElBaradei observed in an interview with The Financial Times on February 19 that even if Iran had 3,000 or more centrifuges operating, they could not go beyond 5% enrichment, which would be far below what would be required for weapons-grade uranium, as long they remain under an IAEA inspection regime.

In February 2006, ElBaradei suggested that Iran should be allowed a small-scale enrichment program on Iranian soil in exchange for guarantees of no full nuclear-fuel production that could be diverted for military purposes. Such an agreement would allow the international community to know with certainty rather than having to guess whether Iran is actually enriching uranium to weapons-grade level or not.

The United States has insisted that it will not negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue until it has agreed to suspend enrichment completely, but Iran has said it will only enter talks without preconditions.

The administration of US President George W Bush is furious with ElBaradei for taking the steam out of its campaign of pressure on Iran. The IAEA report that Iran had made "a significant step forward" by agreeing to a work plan for addressing remaining nuclear issues by the end of the year makes it more difficult for the US administration to get support for ratcheting up pressure on Iran at a meeting of the IAEA next week.

Even worse for the administration, according to a report by Tom Olmstead in US News this week, the agreement "could well blunt any rapid moves at the Security Council for further sanctions".

The Washington Post, which has been vocal in support of the administration's aggressive policy toward Iran, attacked ElBaradei on Wednesday in an editorial for using his agency to "thwart" US policy. The Post accused him of refusing to "carry out the policy of the Security Council or the IAEA board" and acting "as if he were independent of them ..."

The Bush administration has long regarded the IAEA chief as an obstacle to its policy of using military threats and economic sanctions to coerce Iran to give up its nuclear program and has tried repeatedly to remove ElBaradei as general director or to get him to follow its line toward Iran.

Neo-conservatives in the administration were furious with him for having rejected its charge that Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing a nuclear-weapons program before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But ElBaradei angered administration officials again by refusing to go along with its policy of accusing Iran of having a secret nuclear-weapons program. Then-secretary of state Colin Powell confirmed in mid-December 2004 that he had asked ElBaradei to step down the previous summer.

Despite US diplomatic pressure on its allies, however, in an April 2005 showdown in the IAEA board, the US was the only one of 35 members who did not support another term for ElBaradei.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

(Inter Press Service)

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