Bloomberg News

U.S. Concerned Iran on Verge of Underground Nuclear Enrichment

December 20, 2011

Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration is concerned Iran is on the verge of being able to enrich uranium at a facility deep underground near the Muslim holy city of Qom, which may strengthen those advocating tougher action to stop Iran’s suspected atomic weapons program.

Iranian nuclear scientists at the Fordo facility appear to be within weeks of producing 20 percent enriched uranium, according to Iran analysts and nuclear specialists who are in close communication with U.S. officials and atomic inspectors. Enriched uranium is used to fuel power plants and reactors, and may be further processed into atomic weapons material.

Administration officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue say Iran’s actions may bolster calls for military or covert action against the Persian Gulf country from Republican presidential candidates. It may also fuel pressure on the administration to impose measures approved by Congress to limit Iran’s oil exports.

“Senior advisers to President Obama privately express concern that Israel might see Iran’s commencement of the Fordo facility” as a justification for a military strike, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington who has frequent discussions with the White House.

The U.S. and Israel have said military action remains an option if needed to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Repair Fractures

Sadjadpour said some White House officials are questioning whether Iran is trying to provoke an Israeli strike as a way to rally support and sympathy at home and abroad, and “repair internal political fractures, both among political elites and between society and the regime.”

Crude for January delivery gained as much as 67 cents to $95.62 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange and was at $95.61 at 3 p.m. Sydney time. The contract yesterday slid 5.2 percent to $94.95, the lowest close since Nov. 4. Prices are 4.7 percent higher this year after climbing 15 percent in 2010.

Concerns about confrontations with Iran sent oil up 2.4 percent on Dec. 13, the biggest gain in almost four weeks, on speculation shipments from the Persian Gulf would be disrupted after a report that Iran will hold drills to practice closing the Strait of Hormuz.

‘Destroy It’

On Sept. 19, the head of Iran’s nuclear energy program, Fereydoun Abbasi, said 20 percent uranium enrichment would start at the Fordo site within six months, and said the facility was built deep underground “to make the Americans and their allies work tougher to destroy” it.

Gholamreza Jalali, head of Iran’s civil defense organization, said yesterday that Iran will move its uranium enrichment centers to locations that are safer from attack if necessary, according to the state-run Mehr news agency.

U.S. officials say Iran is now close to starting up Fordo’s two cascades of 174 centrifuges each, fast-spinning machines that enrich uranium for use as a nuclear fuel by separating its isotopes. Uranium enriched at higher concentrations of 90 percent can be used for a bomb. Iran says it needs more 20 percent material for a medical reactor and has plans for more, a claim inspectors have challenged.

U.S. officials say they are in close consultation with Israel, European allies and inspectors over sensitive activities at Fordo, which the U.S. says would breach Iran’s obligations under UN Security Council resolutions. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is in Washington for meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Congressional leaders.

Nearly Operational

Dennis Ross, who was until last month special assistant to President Barack Obama and National Security Council senior director for the region including Iran, said yesterday Israel has reason to be concerned about enrichment at Qom.

Iran’s accumulation of low-enriched uranium, its decision to enrich to nearly 20 percent “when there is no justification for it,” its hardening of sites, and other “activities related to possible weaponization” are factors that “affect the Israeli calculus and ours,” Ross, now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mail. “Qom is important, but it is worth remembering that IAEA inspectors go there, and I would not isolate Qom and say this alone is the Israeli red-line” to spur a military response.

Last month, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran moved a large cylinder of 5 percent enriched uranium from the Natanz fuel enrichment plant to the Fordo facility near Qom. Iranian nuclear engineers have installed centrifuges that need only to be connected to cooling and electric lines to become operational, the IAEA said.

Program Sabotage

The Nov. 8 report went further than any previous public document in listing nuclear activities that inspectors said had no purpose other than for weapons work. Iran insists its program is for peaceful energy and medical research.

Nuclear physicist David Albright, founder of the independent Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former weapons inspector, said in an interview yesterday that what concerns Israel most is Iran’s plan to triple the rate of enrichment by installing new generation centrifuges at Fordo that are being tested at the Natanz site.

“The program has gone slower than expected -- they’re having trouble building and operating the centrifuges, which could be the result of Stuxnet or other sabotage,” Albright said, referring to a computer worm that is believed to have damaged Iran’s centrifuges last year.

‘Breakout Capability’

At the current rate, Albright said, it would likely take Iran till the end of 2013 to enrich enough 20 percent uranium to be further processed for use in one bomb. If Iran were to get three sets of new generation centrifuges working at Fordo and Natanz, they could produce enough material by the end of next year that could be further enriched to weapons-grade, he said.

“Where Israel would get more nervous is if Iran started to install hundreds of advanced centrifuges underground,” which would mean a “breakout capability over about six months,” Albright said, referring to the ability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. And at Fordo, “there’s no way to blow it up because it’s 90 meters under rock.”

Nevertheless, “Israelis still feel there’s time for diplomacy,” Albright said.

Asked about Fordo, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Iran needs “to meet their obligations and to prove to the world their peaceful intent, and they are far from having done that at this stage.”

More Sanctions

Iran only admitted the existence of the Fordo plant, built deep into a mountain south of the capital Tehran, in September 2009 after U.S., British and French intelligence agencies gathered information on the clandestine facility.

In Congress, growing concern has played out in a measure attached to the defense authorization bill to sanction transactions with the Iranian central bank in an effort to choke off its oil exports. The measure would give the president power to bar foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran’s central bank from having accounts in the U.S., making it very hard for foreign companies to pay for oil from Iran, the world’s third-largest crude exporter.

Oil is Iran’s major source of income, supplying more than 50 percent of the national budget, according to International Monetary Fund figures. The second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia, Iran exported an average 2.58 million barrels a day in 2010, according to OPEC statistics.

--With assistance from Jonathan Tirone in Vienna, Ladane Nasseri and Robert Tuttle in Dubai and Margaret Talev in Washington. Editors: Andrew J. Barden, Ben Holland

To contact the reporters on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net;


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