Multiple sources now confirm that Iran has an operational uranium-enrichment facility located in Nantanz, 200 miles south of Tehran. In late February, Mohammed ElBaradei, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency visited this facility, which will be placed under international inspection. The plant is currently equipped with 160 new gas centrifuges, with parts reportedly in place for an additional 1,000 machines. Iran has plans to eventually operate the plant with a total of 5,000 centrifuges. According to the Washington Post, when this plant is completed in 2005, Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several bombs a year.

Western intelligence services have long-suspected the existence of a clandestine Iranian program to manufacture nuclear weapons. Prior to the suspicions over Natanz, however, the U.S. had focused primarily on the Russian-supplied power reactor at Bushehr and the accompanying technical know-how. Iran's prior progress was thought to depend mainly on the supply policies of Russia and China. Now, it is suspected that Iran's centrifuge success in Natanz is a result of enrichment know-how allegedly provided by Pakistan and others.

There has been much uncertainty attached to Iran's ability to acquire a nuclear weapon capability. In 1992-93, U.S. and Israeli officials had estimated that Iran might have a nuclear bomb by 2000-2002. In March 1997, John Holum, then director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, testified before Congress that Iran remained eight to ten years away from acquiring nuclear weapons. In its 2001 unclassified report to the U.S. Congress, the Defense Department did not put a time-frame on Iran's nuclear capabilities.

Iran has the basic nuclear technology and infrastructure to build a nuclear weapon and its still-modest civilian nuclear program has allowed Tehran to legally pursue capabilities that could aid a proscribed nuclear weapon program. For example, the CIA has been concerned about Iran's attempt to acquire a uranium conversion facility (UCF). The UCF could be used for the production of uranium hexafluoride, a material used in a feed for uranium enrichment operations and production of enriched uranium. During ElBaradei's February visit, Iran also confirmed that a plant in Esfahan will be used to produce uranium-hexafloride, probably to be used in the Nantanz enrichment facility located several miles east of Esfahan.

Thus far, none of Iran's known nuclear activity violates the country's obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as Tehran continues to accept full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on its nuclear material and facilities. Iran had previously told the IAEA that Natanz was the site of a fuel-cycle related installation, although intelligence analysts in the U.S. and analysts in the IAEA Department of Safeguards had suspected the true nature of the Nantanz plant. Under its NPT safeguard requirements, however, Iran is not required to declare any uranium enrichment facility until 6 months before it introduces nuclear material into the plant.

Given that this nuclear investment makes little economic sense for a cash-strapped, oil and natural gas-rich nation, it inevitably sounds the nuclear weapon alarms. In a time when the strategy to prevent the spread of these weapons is in such flux, the Natanz surprise raises the stakes, not just for the Bush administration's non-proliferation strategy but also for the efficacy of the existing non-proliferation regime.


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