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June 15, 2011

Analysts Dispute Iran's Uranium-Enrichment Claims

by Jeffrey Young

The international community has demanded that Iran fully acknowledge all of its nuclear related activities, and halt any work toward acquiring nuclear weapons. But Tehran has responded by announcing that it will not only continue to enrich uranium, but also, expand production.

Despite condemnation from around the globe, Iran says it will continue to enrich uranium. And, in the eyes of many, the Islamic Republic is also working to make these enrichment activities even less visible.

On June 8, the head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Fereidoun Abbasi, said uranium enrichment would be done at two facilities - though apparently for different uses.

One facility, at Natanz, will continue to enrich uranium for electrical generation. But another facility, called Fordo, will have a much more controversial purpose. Analyst Corey Hinderstein, with the anti-proliferation group Nuclear Threat Initiative, says the Fordo enrichment will be to a much higher level.

"This is the kind of enrichment that is still not usable in a nuclear weapon, but it gives them a platform from which, if they made a decision to make a nuclear weapon, they could do so in a much shorter amount of time," Hingerstein noted.

The Fardo enrichment facility is within an apparently heavily-fortified, hollowed-out mountain near the city of Qom.  And that, according to former weapons inspector and nuclear analyst David Albright, at the Institute for Science and International Security, does the opposite of assuring the world that Iran's nuclear intentions are peaceful.

"What Iran has done is send a very provocative signal that it is taking centrifuges - advanced centrifuges - and putting them underground in a site that cannot be bombed," noted Albright.  "And then, making materials. They could be, in the end, just that much closer to material that would be used in a nuclear weapon."

Iran nuclear chief Abbasi says the Fardo enrichment site will produce uranium enriched to about 20 percent, to be used in creating medical isotopes.  And he says the facility will do this enrichment at three times the previous rate.  Corey Hinderstein says she flatly rejects this justification.

"They already have about 50 kilograms of this higher enriched - 20 percent – uranium," Hinderstein said.  "That is, already, about five years' worth of material for the [Tehran Research medical] reactor.  And, they have no other reactors to use [for creating medical isotopes].  So, the idea that they would need triple this amount on an annual basis just doesn't jibe with their civilian activities."

Iran's continued work on its nuclear program has caused some to call for military action.  But that threat, according to some analysts, only causes Tehran to be even more determined to proceed.  And, they say, it's why nothing substantive seems to have come from repeated talks with Iranian officials.

The RAND Corporation recently issued a report on Iran's nuclear program which contained several proposals for the United States and other nations.

One course of action would be to make current sanctions against Iran even tougher, and back that up with a more robust U.S. military presence in the Gulf.

Another option would be to combine tougher sanctions with the building of missile defenses by other Persian Gulf countries to neutralize possible Iranian threats.

Yet a third idea set forth in the RAND report would go the other direction - relaxing sanctions and perceived military threats in hopes of pulling Iran out of its "bunker" mentality.

One of the RAND study's authors, Ali Reza Nader, says this third approach would have to overcome decades of hostilities between Iran and the West.

"One of the options we discussed in the report is diplomacy, or engagement - lessening Iran's sense of threat from the United States," noted Ali Reza Nader.  "Of course, there are various impediments to achieving this from both sides.  Building the domestic support for some sort of relationship with Iran and the United States."

Analyst Nader says Tehran's first and foremost imperative is to ensure the survival of its regime.  He, and the RAND study, say that addressing this primary concern may be the key to finally getting Iran to ease its nuclear ambitions.