Image: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours nuclear facility
Hopd  /  AP
In this photo released by the Iranian President's Office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right is escorted by technicians during a tour of Tehran's research reactor center in northern Tehran on Wednesday.
NBC News and news services
updated 2/18/2012 2:25:34 PM ET 2012-02-18T19:25:34

Iran has laid groundwork for new centrifuges that would allow it to expand uranium enrichment at a fortified underground bunker but lacks key equipment needed to operate them because of sanctions, a senior U.S. official told NBC News on Saturday.

The official referred to the nuclear facility as a "Potemkin" plant, a facade that could not operate and was under close watch by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The official commented after a report from The Associated Press that Iran had put finishing touches for the installation of thousands of new-generation centrifuges at the cavernous facility — machines that can produce enriched uranium much more quickly and efficiently than its present machines and could help it build a nuclear weapon.

But the diplomats also told the AP that while the electrical circuitry, piping and supporting equipment for the new centrifuges was in place at the Fordo facility, Iran had not started installing the new machines, and they could not say whether it was planning to.

Still, the senior diplomats — who asked for anonymity because their information was privileged — suggested that Tehran would have little reason to prepare the ground for the better centrifuges unless it planned to operate them. They spoke in recent interviews — the last one Saturday.

The AP said the reported work at Fordo appeared to reflect Iran's determination to forge ahead with nuclear activity that could be used to make atomic arms despite rapidly escalating international sanctions and the latent threat of an Israeli military strike on its nuclear facilities.

Story: What would happen if Iran did get the bomb?

Fordo could be used to make fissile warhead material even without such an upgrade, the diplomats said.

They said that although older than Iran's new generation machines, the centrifuges now operating there can be reconfigured within days to make such material because they already are enriching to 20 percent — a level that can be boosted quickly to weapons-grade quality.

Their comments appeared to represent the first time anyone had quantified the time it would take to reconfigure the Fordo centrifuges into machines making weapons-grade material.

Video: US cautiously optimistic over potential Iran talks (on this page)

In contrast, Iran's older enrichment site at Natanz is producing uranium at 3.4 percent, a level normally used to power reactors. While that too could be turned into weapons-grade uranium, reassembling from low to weapons-grade production is complex, and retooling the thousands of centrifuges at Natanz would likely take weeks.

The diplomats' recent comments came as International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are scheduled to visit Tehran on Sunday. Their trip — the second this month — is another attempt to break more than three years of Iranian stonewalling about allegations that Tehran has — or is — secretly working on nuclear weapons that would be armed with uranium enriched to 90 percent or more.

Strait of Hormuz: Iranians, smugglers and fireworks

Diplomats accredited to the IAEA expect little from that visit. They told the AP that — as before — Iran was refusing to allow the agency experts to visit Parchin, the suspected site of explosives testing for a nuclear weapon and had turned down other key requests made by the experts.

Iranian officials deny nuclear weapons aspirations, saying the claims are based on bogus intelligence from the U.S. and Israel.

But IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has said there are increasing indications of such activity. His concerns were outlined in 13-page summary late last year listing clandestine activities that either can be used in civilian or military nuclear programs, or "are specific to nuclear weapons."

This article contains reporting from NBC News' Andrea Mitchell and The Associated Press.

Video: US cautiously optimistic over potential Iran talks

  1. Closed captioning of: US cautiously optimistic over potential Iran talks

    >>> secretary of state hillary clinton is expressing cautious interest in an offer from iran to hold talks about its nuclear program . meanwhile, iran may be cut off from a crucial worldwide clearinghouse. joining me from washington is the national security reporter for "the washington post ." good morning to you, jobe.

    >> good morning to you.

    >> yes, we're back at 7:00. get used to this. the offer from iran , is this going to lead to talks?

    >> the last time iran said it wanted to talk, you know, it showed up and says we'll talk about anything except for our nuclear program . we want to talk about your nuclear program , not ours. there's this tortured history and the west has said, look, we'll talk with you if you're willing to do this unconditionally. this letter shows up saying we're ready to talk unconditionally, we're ready to talk about nukes. people are intrigued. is it real, is it not? we'll have to see.

    >> do you think this is an offer to try to buy time?

    >> that's the fear and i think the west this time is going to want to see what they call confidence building measures. that could be something like, okay, you have to freeze your production of enriched uranium, or allow inspection by inspectors. something that shows this is serious and not to just give them more time.

    >> there's this net to cut off its banking around the world. that includes oil deals. wouldn't that kill their economy?

    >> they're already in trouble. this new thing the europeans want to do is cut them off from the swift network, the way banks move money around internationally. if they exclude iran from that they don't have a way to collect money from their oil sales. they're already in trouble. this could be something that could put them in a bind and hopefully force them to take this stuff seriously.

    >> have they gone as far as to describe what these talks would look like, what the format of negotiations and discussions would be?

    >> haven't gotten that far yet. i've covered these before. it's excruciating from a reporter's view. it's a bunch of people in a fabulous hotel behind closed doors , sometimes for hours and days. they come out and dribble out a statement every now and then. this is usually tedious and often not very satisfying at the end.

    >> how high do you think the diplomatic level of involvement would be? we talked about secretary of state clinton saying she's got cautious optimism and interest in this. would it get that high that she'd be leading the talks?

    >> i think not unless it looks leak a breakthrough. last time around when there were talks she sent an undersecretary. she didn't go himself. if there was a sense we might have a breakthrough, she might go in person. i wouldn't bet on it at this point.

    >> what about the worry of the domino effect , joby, that were iran to develop nuclear arms that everybody else in the middle east would want to do so with saudi arabia , starting right there. if iran gets them, they're getting them.

    >> exactly. that is the most frightening thing. north korea has a couple of nuclear weapons . nobody gets that excited. they're fairly contained. they're not growing their arsenal. they can't do anything with a couple nuclear weapons anyway. for iran , the bigger fear is, if they get one, everybody else in the neighborhood is going to want one, too. things can get out of control quickly. that's why the west feels they have to be stabbed here.

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