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Inspectors: Iran passes uranium milestone

Iran seems to be able to produce fuel suitable for nuclear reactors.

By TIMES WIRES
Published May 15, 2007


Inspectors have concluded that Iran appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale.

The findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency may change the calculus of diplomacy in Europe and in Washington, which aimed to force a suspension of Iran's enrichment in large part to prevent it from learning how to produce weapons-grade material.

In a short-notice inspection of Iran's main nuclear plant at Natanz on Sunday, conducted in advance of a report to the U.N. Security Council early next week, inspectors found that Iranian engineers were already using roughly 1, 300 centrifuges and were producing fuel suitable for nuclear reactors, according to diplomats and nuclear experts here.

Until recently, the Iranians were having difficulty keeping the delicate centrifuges spinning at the tremendous speeds necessary to make nuclear fuel, and often were running them empty, or not at all.

Those roadblocks appear to have been surmounted.

"We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich, " said Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the energy agency who clashed with the Bush administration four years ago when he declared that there was no evidence that Iraq had resumed its nuclear program. "From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that's a fact."

It is unclear whether Iran can sustain its recent progress. Major setbacks are common in uranium enrichment, and experts say that miscalculation, equipment failures or sabotage could prevent the Iranian government from reaching its goal of producing fuel on what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasts is "an industrial scale." The material produced so far would have to undergo further enrichment before it could be transformed into bomb-grade material, and to accomplish that Iran would probably first have to evict the IAEA inspectors, as North Korea did four years ago.

Ahmadinejad warned of retaliation if the United States interferes with its ambitions.

Despite the tense words, the United States and Iran announced Sunday that they have agreed to meet in Baghdad to discuss security and stability in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Russia on Monday, said the idea of meeting with Iran came from talks with Iraq's neighboring countries.

"One of the most important things to help the Iraqis is dealing with their border issues, with the flow of foreign fighters and arms across the border, " Rice said, "and from our point of view and the coalition's point of view, dealing with the dangerous technologies that are originating in Iran that are putting our soldiers at risk. So this seemed to be a good time to follow up on some of the general commitments that the neighbors took."