MIDDLE EAST Questions about Iran's nuclear enrichment efforts linger

Iran appears ready to defy the U.N. watchdog agency.
As a Monday U.N. deadline approaches, Iran is expanding its controversial nuclear enrichment program -- a calculated dare that crosses a "red line" for Western governments concerned about Iranian atomic weapon ambitions.
On Wednesday, talks between Russia and Iran -- about a proposal to shift Iranian enrichment to Russian soil -- failed to reach an agreement. Both sides agreed to meet again today.
But pressure on Iran increased this week when details of Iran's new steps to enrich uranium were revealed in a confidential report by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamad ElBaradei. Iran plans to set up 3,000 centrifuges later this year.
The report states that the IAEA "has not seen any diversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons," but lists a string of questions about Iran's nuclear program that it has yet to answer.
"The fact is, [the IAEA] has gotten more access [to Iranian facilities], and clarification has been better," says a Western official in Vienna who follows the IAEA closely. "But the actions that Iran has taken -- to get enrichment up and running -- that is clearly a provocation."
Nuclear power
Iran says the material is to fuel a peaceful nuclear power program. Western capitals, led by Washington, believe that stated goal masks a desire to become a nuclear weapons state.
Speaking in Afghanistan on Wednesday, President Bush said, "Iran must not have a nuclear weapon. The most destabilizing thing that can happen in this region and in the world is for Iran to ... develop a nuclear weapon."
The 35-member IAEA Board of Governors voted Feb. 4 to "report" Iran to the Security Council, for multiple disclosure violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Russia and China insisted that action be delayed until the March 6 meeting, to find a diplomatic solution.
The IAEA also requested that Iran cease all nuclear activities, to build confidence that its efforts are "exclusively peaceful."
But Iran's reaction has been in keeping with tough rhetoric from hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has vowed -- like his reformist predecessor -- that Iran will master uranium enrichment on its own soil, regardless of the diplomatic or military cost.
"It is partly a calculation, and partly a gamble," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Alameh University in Tehran and a former diplomat at the United Nations.
"From a technical standpoint, [Iran] is not in violation of the NPT, but the reaction in the Western world is that all enrichment activity must be suspended," says Bavand, reached by phone in Tehran.
Provocative decision
The decision to renew enrichment work now "was provocative, actually. Iran did not need to be involved in these primary activities," says Bavand. "It creates a lack of trust, [and] does not [yet] have any relation to real enrichment. It's just a scientific pursuit."
The IAEA report notes that tests began Feb. 11, when Iran fed a single centrifuge with converted uranium gas. A cascade of 10 connected machines was fed with gas several days later; a week ago, a 20-machine cascade was being vacuum-tested. Some 3,000 are to be installed by the "fourth quarter of 2006."
The cascade is a chain of centrifuges in which each in turn enriches the gas.
Still, myriad technical problems have slowed past Iranian centrifuge efforts, and thousands of machines working in concert would be required to create sufficient quantities of nuclear fuel. Enriching to weapons-grade is even more complex.
"They have not done a whole lot. It was a calculated move to say to the Americans: 'If you keep pressing us, we can go all the way,' "says Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political scientist currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "It was a signal: 'Don't push us into that corner.' "

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