World powers this week failed to come up with a unified strategy to press Iran on halting controversial elements of its nuclear program, as a report emerged suggesting the country had made progress in advancing a little-examined feature of its atomic infrastructure.
Diplomats said Friday that American, European, Russian and Chinese officials meeting the day before in Paris had not reached agreement on further steps to pressure Iran to halt uranium enrichment at its facility in Natanz. Enrichment is a highly technical process that can produce fuel for a nuclear power plant or fissile material for atomic weapons.
After the talks ended without any new measures to announce, the French Foreign Ministry released a statement saying the international community had “reaffirmed the importance of the dual-track approach” of engaging diplomatically with Iran and pressing for sanctions.
Moscow’s Interfax news agency quoted Russian diplomat Sergei Ryabkov, who attended the meeting, as saying the parties had struck no deal on sanctions. “The Western countries are for the sanctions,” he was quoted as saying. “China, like Russia, did not back it.”
Meanwhile, a report released this week says Iran has made significant progress at another facility: a heavy-water research reactor being built near the city of Arak, which could eventually produce plutonium that might be used in a nuclear weapon.
According to satellite images published by the Institute for Science and International Security, construction at the Arak plant progressed significantly between February and October.
“It’s slipped everyone’s notice,” said David Albright, a former arms inspector and president of the Washington-based institute. “If you look at the satellite image, it’s really making progress. In a year and a half, it’s gone from building frames to largely finished.”
Iran says it is pursuing nuclear technology to produce energy and conduct research. But the U.S. and its Western allies suspect that Tehran’s efforts to produce low-grade uranium, legal under international arms control regulations, is a precursor to creating a weapons infrastructure.
The latest developments show the complex diplomatic and technical challenges the team of President-elect Barack Obama will face in trying to stop Iran from mastering technology that could be used to make and use nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration in its waning months has managed to synchronize its policies with the European Union, along with British, French and German leaders, in pressing for tougher sanctions and diplomacy against Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitor, is expected to release a report critical of Iran next week.
But with no new initiative emerging from the Paris talks, hopes of imposing another set of U.N. Security Council sanctions before the end of President Bush’s term are fading.
Russia and China, which hold veto power on the Security Council, have resisted new sanctions. Unlike Washington, Moscow and Beijing have close political and business ties with Iran and feel no domestic pressure to act against the Islamic Republic.
Amid the diplomatic maneuvering, Tehran continues to edge forward in nuclear and missile skills. Some Israeli officials have voiced alarm about Iran’s test-firing this week of a solid-fuel, two-stage rocket with a range of 1,200 miles. Tel Aviv is about 650 miles from Iran.
“This is a whole new missile,” Uzi Rubin, an Israeli missile expert, told Jane’s, the British-based defense and military publication.
“It demonstrates a significant leap in Iran’s missile capabilities,” Rubin said.
IAEA inspectors predict the heavy-water reactor near Arak won’t be completed until 2011. Such plants produce relatively large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium that can be extracted from spent uranium fuel through a type of reprocessing plant that Iran neither has nor says it wants. But in its Nov. 13 report, posted at www.isisnucleariran.org, the Institute for Science and International Security cites evidence gathered by IAEA inspectors that suggests Iran could be planning such a facility, which is relatively easy to build.
“Will Iran separate out the plutonium?” Albright asked. “It’s committed not to do so, but there’s a question of whether they’ll stick to that.”
Albright says the Arak plant could potentially produce about 20 pounds of plutonium a year, enough for two nuclear weapons. Physicists say it is easier to design and build a nuclear weapon using plutonium than one using enriched uranium.