Bush administration officials reacted cautiously Tuesday to indications that Iran has improved its ability to enrich uranium as fuel for nuclear reactors, a crucial step toward nuclear weapons.
White House and State Department officials say they still believe diplomacy can persuade Iran to freeze its program before it has mastered the complex technology involved.
The International Atomic Energy Agency will report to the United Nations Security Council next week on Iran’s apparent progress. The Tehran regime has defied U.N. resolutions demanding an immediate suspension of its nuclear enrichment program, and another negative report by the nuclear watchdog agency is almost certain to spur a new round of U.N. sanctions.
Top IAEA officials suggested that Iran’s engineers had achieved significant progress since early this year. The officials indicated that Tehran had overcome several technical challenges that hampered operation of centrifuges in the fuel enrichment plant at Natanz, Iran’s main nuclear facility.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the IAEA, said that the goal of a suspension -- preventing Tehran from gaining knowledge about enrichment -- had been overtaken by events.
“We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich,” ElBaradei told the New York Times on Tuesday. “From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”
Another IAEA official said Tuesday that ElBaradei was trying to signal that the standoff between Iran and the Security Council “is letting time slip away and that Iran will achieve industrial capabilities in a matter of months” unless a deal is struck.
“He’s saying you’ve got to find a way to get both sides to the bargaining table.”
IAEA inspectors who visited Natanz last weekend found about 1,300 centrifuges in operation, although not all were loaded with the uranium gas necessary for enrichment. Iran insists its nuclear effort is designed to generate electricity, and the IAEA now keeps inspectors in Iran full time to monitor the program.
Experts have said Iran will need about 3,000 centrifuges operating for at least a year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. U.S. intelligence analysts fear that if unchecked, Iran conceivably could reach that point by 2009.
Attempts to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program have foundered, in part, over demands that Tehran suspend enrichment as a precondition to negotiations. Iranian officials have refused to do so.
Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday that Iran “continues to isolate itself with rhetoric” that raises “the fear that they’re trying to develop nuclear weapons. That is unacceptable.”
The Bush administration has sought to negotiate with Iran on several key disputes over the last year, and the long-frozen relations appear to be thawing slightly. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked briefly with Iran’s foreign minister this month, and senior U.S. and Iranian diplomats have agreed to meet in Baghdad in coming weeks to discuss the insurgency in Iraq.
On the other hand, Vice President Dick Cheney flew to an American aircraft carrier steaming 150 miles off the Iranian coast last week to warn that the United States was prepared to use military force to keep Tehran from disrupting oil routes or “gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region.”
Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, emphasized Tuesday that a diplomatic solution would be the best way to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“We do believe that we are on the right course, that there is still time to resolve this diplomatically” and persuade Iran to “ultimately change their behavior and ... reverse this program,” Casey said.
He added that the installation of several hundred centrifuges at Natanz in recent months did not prove Tehran had achieved “complete mastery of the fuel cycle.”
Several U.S. nuclear experts also expressed skepticism.
“There’s been an incremental amount of progress by Iran,” said David Albright of the nonpartisan Institute for Science and International Security. “It’s been obvious for several months that Iran knows how to run a centrifuge. They don’t know how to run 3,000, but they’re going to learn.”
The Iranians “are learning more day by day,” said Matthew Bunn, assistant director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “Whether they’re six months or a year away, one can debate. But it’s not 10 years.”