In a defiant move ahead of nuclear talks, Iran has announced plans to vastly increase the pace of its uranium enrichment, which can make both reactor fuel and the fissile core of warheads. Eager to avoid scuttling those negotiations, world powers are keeping their response low-key.
Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency of its intentions last week, and the IAEA informed member nations in an internal note seen by The Associated Press on Thursday.
The brief note quoted Iran as saying new-generation IR2m “centrifuge machines … will be used” to populate a new “unit,” a technical term for an assembly that can consist of as many as 3,132 centrifuges.
It gave no time frame. A senior diplomat familiar with the issue said work had not started, adding that it would take weeks, if not months, to have the new machines running once technicians started putting them in. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge confidential information.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert and former senior official at the U.S. State Department, described the planned upgrade as a potential “game-changer.”
“If thousands of the more efficient machines are introduced, the timeline for being able to produce a weapon’s worth of fissile material will significantly shorten,” said Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“This won’t change the several months it would take to make actual weapons out of the fissile material or the two years or more that it would take to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, so there is no need to start beating the war drums,” he said. “But it will certainly escalate concerns.”
The planned upgrade could burden international efforts to coax Tehran into scaling back its nuclear activities and cooperating with the agency’s attempts to investigate its suspicions of secret weapons work. Talks are tentatively set for next month, with a date and venue still open.
The Iranian plan was condemned by Israel, which sees Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat and has said it would use all means to stop it from reaching weapons capability.
“While the world is discussing where and when the next meeting with Iran will be, Iran is rapidly advancing towards obtaining a nuclear bomb,” said a senior official from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office. “The international community cannot allow Iran to arm itself with a nuclear weapon.”
Phone calls seeking comment from Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief IAEA delegate, went to his voicemail.
Iran may be hoping that its tough line on enrichment will force further concessions from the six, which over the past year have scaled down their demands from a total enrichment freeze. More recently, after a series of inconclusive meetings, they’ve asked merely for a halt to Iran’s higher-enrichment program.