WASHINGTON—The State Department's top arms control official charged Friday that Iran is speeding up its efforts to master the process of enriching uranium on an industrial scale and may be close to surmounting all of the technological barriers.
"We are very close to that point of no return," said Robert Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Enrichment is a process in which machines called centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride gas at supersonic speeds into low enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, depending on the length of the process.
Joseph's comments coincided with the Pentagon's release of an interview transcript in which Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said that he has no confidence in the current U.S. intelligence estimate that Iran is at least five years away from having a nuclear weapon.
The remarks by Rumsfeld and Joseph underscored concerns within the top ranks of the Bush administration that Iran is overcoming the most complex technological hurdles to enrichment faster than anticipated, bringing the nation closer to producing weapons.
Tehran insists its program is for peaceful purposes. U.S. and European officials believe it is secretly developing a nuclear arsenal behind the cover of its civilian project.
Iran ended a more than two-year freeze on enrichment work in January and last week claimed it had used a pilot network of 164 centrifuges at a facility in Natanz to enrich uranium to a level suitable for running a power plant.
Beginning late this year, Iran plans to install the first 3,000 centrifuges of a 50,000-centrifuge underground, industrial-scale plant at Natanz. The 3,000 centrifuges would be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a warhead if operated for a year.
Some U.S. officials and independent experts question last week's Iranian claim and believe that Iran is still years away from building a nuclear warhead.
"We believe that it is still a number of years off before they are likely to have enough fissile material to assemble into or to put into a nuclear weapon, perhaps into the next decade," Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said Thursday during a speech in Washington.
Rumsfeld, interviewed on Tuesday by conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, was asked if he had confidence in the current U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran is five to 10 years away from producing a nuclear weapon.
"No, I'm not confident," answered Rumsfeld, according to the transcript released on Friday. He added that U.S. intelligence agencies have had problems penetrating Iran.
"I think it's a very difficult target for our intelligence community," said Rumsfeld. "They work hard at it and they're fine people, but it's a difficult thing to do. Our visibility into their circumstance is imperfect."
Iran has worked in defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand that it halt the project and disclose to international inspectors all aspects of its program, which it has admitted keeping hidden for 18 years.
Joseph said U.S. officials "see little reason to doubt" Iran's claim of producing low-enriched uranium, although they've been unable to confirm it.
"It's fair to say, I believe, that the Iranians have put both feet on the accelerator," said Joseph. "They are moving very quickly to establish new realities on the ground."
He said that once Iran has mastered the 164-machine pilot plant at Natanz, "you're well on your way to an industrial-scale capability."
Joseph was speaking at a news conference at which another senior U.S. diplomat called on Russia to end arms sales, including anti-aircraft missiles, to Tehran and urged other nations to use their economic clout to push Iran to halt enrichment.
"We think it's time for countries to use their leverage individually, and we think it's time for countries to band together collectively to make the same effort," said Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.
Burns said that the veto-wielding permanent Security Council members—the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France—and Germany agreed in talks earlier this week in Moscow that the council had to step up pressure on Iran.
But Russia and China oppose sanctions, and while the European Union is mulling measures such as a ban on visas for top Iranian officials, there are no signs that it's prepared to reduce its multibillion-dollar investments in Iran's oil and gas sector.
The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to report to the Security Council on April 28 that Iran has refused to comply with the demand to suspend enrichment.
Britain and France are expected to introduce a resolution that gives the demand the force of international law by branding Iran's program a threat to international security.
If the council remains split over sanctions, Burns warned, blocs of countries will join together to impose their own economic and political measures.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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