Iran Seeks More Centrifuges


May 3, 2005 — -- Iran is seeking approval from France, Germany and the United Kingdom for the "assembly, installation and testing" of 3,000 uranium centrifuges at a key nuclear facility, and has warned the Europeans that it may decide this week to resume nuclear fuel production.

ABC News has obtained a copy of the official proposal authored by Iran and presented in late March to France, Germany and the United Kingdom (known as the EU-3). The paper, entitled "General Framework for Objective Guarantees, Firm Guarantees and Firm Commitments" was the subject of discussions in London last Friday between Iran and the EU-3. To date, the United States and its European allies have been opposed to any resumption of Iran's centrifuge enrichment program because of concerns that it could be used to produce uranium for nuclear weapons. Iran's latest proposal was not accepted during last week's London meetings.

Iran's proposal outlines a series of steps that would both advance its nuclear program and purportedly assure the world of its peaceful intentions. Among these are the installation of 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz (located between Isfahan and Kashan in central Iran), and the near-term resumption of work at Esfahan, where Iran maintains a facility for the conversion of uranium ore to hexafluoride (UF6), the gas used in centrifuge enrichment.

In concert with these actions, Iran would have the EU support private and public investment in Iran, undertake feasibility studies for new nuclear power plants in Iran, and eventually sign contracts for the construction of such plants. Iran would also adopt legislation committing it to peaceful nuclear energy and issue policy declarations committing it to low levels of uranium enrichment.

Both the looming threat of uranium conversion work at Esfahan restarting, and Iran's proposal for 3,000 centrifuges, are a measure of the gulf between Iran and the United States, and the challenges facing the EU-3, which is seeking to prolong negotiations at least until after Iran's June elections.

A European diplomat familiar with the negotiations stated gingerly that Iran's proposal to restart Esfahan "had not been accepted" by the EU-3. A U.S. official put it differently, stating that the EU-3 urged Iran strongly on Friday not to go forward with production at the Esfahan plant. The official added that if Iran resumed uranium conversion activities at Esfahan, the EU-3 have promised that the negotiation process under way now with Iran would end, and that they would work with the United States to report Iran to the Security Council for violating its obligations under the NPT.

At the opening of the Nonproliferation Treaty's Review Conference on Monday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker called for the "permanent cessation" of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing efforts, including the "dismantlement of equipment and facilities related to such activity."

When asked whether Iran's desire to install a cascade of 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz was a violation of the spirit, if not the letter of its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty, entered into force in 1970, IAEA Director General Mohammed El Baradei noted that it would be a violation of Iran's voluntary suspension of its enrichment program, an important confidence-building measure that he urged Iran to uphold.

The 3,000 centrifuges mentioned in Iran's proposal is a potentially revealing number.

Currently, the pilot scale enrichment facility at Natanz is designed to accommodate some 1,000 centrifuges, of which 164 have been fully installed. According to Corey Hinderstein, deputy director of the Institute for Science and International Security, the 3,000 centrifuges would form a single building block of a much larger cascade of 50,000 centrifuges that Iran has stated its intends to build one day.

This centrifuge "block" would be installed in underground "halls" at Natanz and give Iran a significant enrichment capability -- enough to produce enough high enriched uranium for two to three bombs per year, according to ISIS, as well as critical experience in operating an enrichment facility.

With additional reporting by Nicholas Schifrin.

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