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Doubts shroud Iran's claims of nuclear progress

/ Source: The Associated Press

Is Iran bluffing about the progress of its nuclear program? Experts and some world powers are expressing doubt that the country has been able to assemble the complicated system it needs to enrich uranium — a potential pathway to nuclear arms.

If true, Iran’s revelation Monday that it now has 3,000 centrifuges producing enriched uranium brings the country a giant step closer to being able to produce the nuclear material for a bomb. But the inaccuracy of some past claims — and Iran’s present drive to defy the U.N. Security Council — has fed skepticism.

Experts say 3,000 centrifuges would be more than enough for at least one nuclear weapon a year should Iran decide to make bombs instead of its professed goal of generating power.

But Monday’s announcement could be at least partly bluff — the latest hand in Iran’s high-stakes game of nuclear poker with the international community that has led to U.N sanctions over its refusal to freeze enrichment.

With its nuclear activities shrouded in suspicions, Iran’s claims are difficult to independently verify. Exaggerating the number of centrifuges gives the Iranians more room to negotiate with world powers — and possibly allow them to hold out and keep some vestige of a nuclear enrichment program.

“This is a country that routinely lies about conventional weapons developments and production,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran analyst at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the country’s announcement sounded like “a boast too far.” And nonproliferation expert Michael Levi at the Council for Foreign Relations cautioned, “We shouldn’t rush to judgments and take Iran at its word.”

What is known independently about the state of Iran’s enrichment program fuels the doubt.

Diplomats dispute claims
Diplomats in Vienna familiar with an International Atomic Energy Agency probe of Iran’s nuclear program said Tuesday it is far less advanced than how it was presented Monday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani.

The diplomats told The Associated Press that Iran was running only about 650 centrifuges in series — the configuration that allows the machines to spin uranium gas to various levels of enrichment. And they said the machines were running empty, with none producing enriched uranium.

Russia and France — two of the six world powers pressuring Iran to give up enrichment — on Tuesday also expressed skepticism about the latest claims.

Russia, which helped build Iran’s only nuclear reactor, was unaware of “any recent technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear program,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said. And Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had yet to get confirmation “that they have actually begun uranium enrichment.”

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei noted: “There are announcements, and then there is technological reality.”

A U.S. official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said concern over the announcement was tinged with a “high degree of skepticism” in Washington that Iran “had attained all what they said they had.”

No photos to back up announcement
The Vienna-based diplomats — all of whom also demanded anonymity — noted that this time, unlike in the past, Iranian officials presented no photos to document their claims. Nor did they offer any other physical proof of their claims.

Iran has refused to allow IAEA cameras at Natanz intended to make sure no low-enriched uranium is diverted into making weapons-grade material. But diplomats said Tuesday the government may be ready to allow inspectors to stay near the facility, allowing more frequent unannounced visits.

Two U.N. inspectors arrived in Iran Tuesday to visit the Natanz plant, Iranian media reported.

But any such deal would be less than what the agency wants. The diplomats said it was unclear whether inspectors would be allowed access to all parts of the enrichment operation — including a walled-off section. And they said that — unlike remote cameras — the IAEA experts would not be able to constantly monitor operations.