Iran is poised to greatly expand uranium enrichment at a fortified underground bunker to a point that would boost how quickly it could make nuclear warheads, diplomats said.
They said Tehran had put finishing touches for the installation of thousands of new-generation centrifuges at the cavernous bunker – machines that can produce enriched uranium much more quickly and efficiently than its present machines.
While saying that the electrical circuitry, piping and supporting equipment for the new centrifuges was now in place, the diplomats emphasised that Tehran had not started installing the new machines at its Fordo facility and 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 yesterday.
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.
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% – 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.
In contrast, Iran’s older enrichment site at Natanz is producing uranium at 3.4%, 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 probably take weeks.
The diplomats’ comments come as International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are due to visit Tehran today. Their trip – the second this month – is another attempt to break more than three years of Iranian stonewalling about claims that it has – or is – secretly working on nuclear weapons that would be armed with uranium enriched to 90% or more.
Diplomats accredited to the IAEA expect little from that visit. They said 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 US 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 programmes, or “are specific to nuclear weapons”.
Among these were indications that Iran has conducted high-explosives testing and detonator development to set off a nuclear charge, as well as computer modelling of a core of a nuclear warhead.
The report also cited preparatory work for a nuclear weapons test and development of a nuclear payload for Iran’s Shahab 3 intermediate range missile - a weapon that could reach Israel.
Iran says it is enriching only to make nuclear fuel. But because enrichment can also create fissile warhead material, the United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions on Tehran in a failed attempt to force it to stop.
More recently, the US, the European Union and other Western allies have either tightened up their own sanctions or rapidly put new penalties in place striking at the heart of Iran’s oil exports lifeline and its financial system.
The most recent squeeze on Iran was announced on Friday, when Brussels-based Swift, a financial clearing house used by virtually every country and major corporation in the world, agreed to shut out the Islamic Republic from its network.