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Analysis by Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON, Jul 11 2006 (IPS) - U.S. and European officials have been saying for years that Iran is using its publicly declared nuclear programme as a cover for a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, but has never produced concrete evidence to support that argument.
Since April, however, Western suspicions of such a secret bomb programme have focused on the idea that Iran has an underground uranium enrichment programme based on the P-2 centrifuge, which is more advanced than the P-1 centrifuge that was used to achieve a 3.5 percent level of uranium enrichment last April.
In a story on Apr. 17, one week after that accomplishment was announced by Iran, New York Times reporters William J. Broad and David E. Sanger wrote, “Western analysts long suspected that Iran had a second, secret programme – based on black market offerings of the renegade Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan – separate from the activity at its main nuclear facility at Natanz. But they had no proof.”
Broad and Sanger suggested that the more advanced P-2 centrifuges on which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had said was “under the process of research and test” might be the basis for a secret uranium enrichment programme. The Iranian leader’s remark, they wrote, could indicate that Iran’s relationship with the Pakistani nuclear network “went on longer and was far deeper than previously acknowledged.”
The P-2 centrifuge design that came from the Khan network is rated in enrichment efficiency as a 5 compared with somewhere between a 1 and 3 for the P-1, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Centre. If they were operational in large numbers, that could spell much faster progress toward the amount of uranium enrichment required for bomb-making.
But the specter of a clandestine P-2 enrichment programme paralleling the declared P-1 progress at Natanz is not supported by leading independent specialists or by what is known about the history of Iran’s nuclear programme.
London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies produced a report last year referring to suspicions that the P-2 centrifuge was “the nucleus of a secret enrichment programme”. Nevertheless, Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior specialist on Iran’s nuclear programme at the IISS, told IPS there is “no evidence” of a P-2 programme that could enrich uranium any time soon, and that Iran has focused on enriching uranium with P-1 centrifuges.
When Robert Joseph, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, discussed the threat from Iranian uranium enrichment on Mar. 8, he focused entirely on Iran’s publicly declared P-1 programme.
Suspicion of Iran’s nuclear policy has been provoked by Tehran’s tendency to withhold important information about its nuclear programmes from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) even after it had pledged in October 2003 to provide a complete and accurate account of what it had concealed for nearly two decades.
Hassan Rowhani, the long-time secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, admitted in a speech to high-ranking Iranian clerics in the autumn of 2004 that this tendency had been damaging to Iran’s interests. Referring to uranium enrichment, he said, “If we had done it openly, the problem would have been far simpler.”
Instead, since October 2003, the IAEA has repeatedly found evidence of nuclear activities that Iran had not declared.
The most serious of those discoveries involved the P-2 centrifuge. After details of Libya’s purchases from A.Q. Khan network were revealed to the IAEA in 2003, Iran had to acknowledge that it had purchased drawings of a P-2 centrifuge in 1995 from the same network.
Iran decided against reliance on the P-2 centrifuge, however. What Sri Lankan businessman Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, who was a key part of Khan’s network, has revealed under interrogation since early 2004 indicates that Iran never placed a significant order for the P-2. It is not even clear that it obtained even a single P-2 centrifuge from the network.
On Jan. 21, 2006, Agence France-Presse published a story based on an unnamed Western diplomatic source, alleging that had told Western interrogators of three shipments of one P-2 centrifuge each to Iran in 1997. But that story is shrouded in doubt and ambiguity.
IAEA Director General Mohammad ElBaradei revealed in a February 2005 interview that the IAEA had already had “an extended conversation” with Tahir. But apparently Tahir said nothing about P-2 shipments to Iran when he was interviewed by the IAEA. IAEA reports show that the IAEA did not ask Iran about what it called “possible delivery” of P-2 centrifuge components until November 2005.
Both a State Department official and an IAEA source told “Arms Control Today” that Tahir could not provide any documentation for the claim.
David Albright, who has long had excellent contacts in IAEA, told IPS that Tahir “believes [the Iranians] got samples of P-2 from salesmen in Dubai” but “can’t say that they arrived in Iran.” Iran has insisted that it neither ordered nor received any P-2 centrifuges from the Khan network or any other intermediary.
Iran has also claimed to the IAEA that it did no work on the P-2 centrifuge from the time it received the drawings of the P-2 centrifuge in 1995 until it contracted with a private company to produce a revised design for the P-2 and test it without using gas. The IAEA has expressed doubt about that assertion, indicating that the modifications done on the original could not have been achieved in such a short time.
Iran was undoubtedly doing other research work on the P-2 during the 1995-2002 period. Nevertheless, the evidence supports the broader claim by Iran that it had decided to develop the P-1 rather than the P-2 during that period.
According to Iran’s October 2003 declaration to the IAEA, between 1997 and 2002, Iran had begun to operate small cascades of 10-20 P-1 machines. And early in that period, Iran decided to construct an enrichment facilities at Natanz based on the P-1 centrifuge, rather than the P-2.
Journalist Mark Hibbs, writing in “Nuclear Fuel” last February, reported that Iran told the IAEA last year that it chose to use the P-1 as its mainstay because it had encountered difficulties in finishing a crucial component of both the P-1 and the P-2: the bottom bearing. Hibbs wrote that manufacturing the bearings correctly requires highly sophisticated machine tools that are not generally available outside a few advanced industrialised countries.
The P-1 centrifuges that Iran acquired from the A.Q. Khan network were known to be prone to excessive vibration, because the Pakistanis had not yet mastered the bottom bearings in those early years.
Iran has made no secret of the fact it is pursuing research on the P-2. In a press conference on Jun. 2, 2004, Rowhani said that research on the P-2 had had not yet been completed, and that Iran “would decide on producing P2 parts whenever pertinent research is completed.”
But Tehran has not responded to IAEA inquiries about the status of P-2 research since Ahmadinejad’s Apr. 11 remarks. A source close to the IAEA told IPS Monday that this silence may reflect Iran’s backtracking from its 2003 pledge to implement the Additional Protocol requiring reporting on such activities.
That Iranian move was a response to the U.S.-EU initiative to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council last March. “It’s all part of the diplomatic game,” said the source.
*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in June 2005.
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