VIENNA — Iran appears not to have significantly expanded its uranium enrichment program this summer, a development that has many experts wondering whether the threat of sanctions finally has had an impact on the Iranian government.
Experts won't know for sure if Iran has paused its program until a report this week from a team of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who were in Iran last week for the third round of inspections this summer. A public debate on the report is scheduled for the IAEA's Sept. 10 meeting.
But after five years of frustration at a lack of Iranian cooperation, those who closely follow Iran's nuclear program believe that Iran's resumption of IAEA inspections coupled with the apparent halt in expansion may signal that the Islamic Republic is willing to compromise.
The apparent slowing of Iran's uranium enrichment program has surprised many at a time that the United States is again ramping up efforts against Iran.
The Bush administration reportedly is considering labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard — Iran's elite military force — a terrorist organization. The move comes after Washington accused the guard of aiding insurgents in Iraq against the U.S., a charge the guard denies.
There are also reports that the Bush administration is debating air strikes against Iran to stop its nuclear program.
At the center of speculation about the Iranian nuclear program is how many centrifuges — the devices that spin uranium ore into ever-purer concentrations — Iran is operating.
Experts had expected that over the summer Iran would begin operating 18 cascades, or sets, of centrifuges, numbering 164 centrifuges each. That number, 2,952 centrifuges in all, would allow Iran to enrich enough uranium in one year for a nuclear weapon, if the centrifuges were operating at full capacity. Experts also note that the IAEA believed early this summer that Iran would have 8,000 working centrifuges by the end of this year.
But experts say indications are that Iran has frozen the program at about 2,000, the same number it was operating in June when IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei declared himself deeply worried about Iran's program and the increasingly bellicose Western reaction to it.
That number, ElBaradei said then, was "more than adequate" for research and development, one of the goals Iran has said it has in maintaining an enrichment program in the face of Western objections. He worried that the expansion would lead to a military confrontation unless diplomatic efforts were able to resolve the standoff.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and within it's national rights. But Iranian officials agreed earlier this month to resolve any outstanding issues with the IAEA.
They also held talks with the European Union — which experts note means, by proxy, the United States. The U.S. has stood back on the Iranian issue in favor of a coalition effort, the so-called three plus three of Germany, France and Great Britain with Russia, China and the U.S.
The six nations have proposed what they call a carrot and stick approach, offering technology and economic assistance in exchange for Iranian concessions. The six have been seeking a "double time out" this summer — agreeing not to pursue further sanctions while Iran halts enrichment activities. Iran has said it will not stop enrichment before negotiations.
Jacqueline Shire, a senior analyst for Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, called Iran's apparent pause in its expansion a positive development, especially since before June Iran had added hundreds of centrifuges to its enrichment program this year.
But she said that even 2,000 centrifuges is an unacceptable number. "The world is not a better place with an Iranian nuclear weapons program," she said. "There are a lot of people arguing that it's too late to force Iran to shut down all enrichment activity, that horse has already left the barn. Our argument would be that maybe it's time to put that horse back in the barn."
The Iranian enrichment program has been the subject of debate since September 2003, when Iranian nuclear officials announced that they had successful produced enriched uranium in a single 164-centrifuge cascade.
Until then, Iran had not acknowledged that it had an enrichment program. While Iran under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has a right to enrich uranium, the treaty prohibits secret programs, and so the secrecy immediately raised suspicions about the program's intent. The process for low-level uranium enrichment needed for energy and research purposes is almost identical to the high-level enrichment needed for weapons. Essentially, they just have to keep the machines running longer.
Adding to the concern was the discovery that during the 1980s and 1990s Iran received assistance from Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, who headed that country's successful development of a nuclear weapon.
Iran's program has proceeded in fits and starts. An effort to build more sophisticated centrifuges — Iran's current stock basically uses 1950s technology — failed. Since then, they've concentrated on building an increasing number of first generation centrifuges, increasing from 164 in 2003 to double that in 2004, and now somewhere around 2,000.
Europeans are hopeful, however, that the slowdown in the program signals that the crisis can be resolved without military action.
One European diplomat close to the negotiations said it's becoming clear that the Iranians are "feeling the effects" not only of existing sanctions, which include prohibitions on the sale of nuclear technology to Iran and travel restrictions on officials affiliated with the program, but the possibility of stricter future sanctions.
"They are worried about international investment drying up," said the diplomat, who asked that she not be further identified because of the sensitive nature of the topic. She said negotiators are on a tightrope. "They have to be firm: If Iran is playing us for time, we can't play that game. But we can't be so firm as to give them an excuse to end this discussion," she said.
Oliver Thraenert, an expert on Iran and nuclear proliferation at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, urged a tough stance on the Iranian program.
"If we want to avoid both Iranian nuclear weapons and military action against Iran, now is the time for stronger sanctions and strong diplomacy," he said.