Iran has mastered crucial nuclear technology since August and could be as little as six months away from being able to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, the United Nations’ chief nuclear watchdog warned on Monday.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran was overwhelmingly likely to miss a UN deadline on Wednesday to suspend enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material.
The IAEA chief will meet Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, on Tuesday; a day later he will issue governments with a report on Iran’s compliance with the UN’s demands.
Mr ElBaradei said Iran had now acquired important technical know-how from running its pilot nuclear programme, and that there there was no going back. “You cannot bomb knowledge,”? he said.
Since August last year Iran has been using centrifuges at a pilot plant in the town of Natanz to enrich uranium. Although Tehran insists its purposes are purely peaceful, it has refused to halt the process. Both the US and Israel have warned that Iran might reach a “point of no return”? in its nuclear programme by mastering the technology of uranium enrichment.
Mr ElBaradei added that US and British intelligence estimates said that Iran was still five to 10 years away from developing a nuclear bomb and warned against “hype”? over Tehran’s nuclear progress.
He argued that even if the concern that Tehran might acquire technical knowledge about uranium enrichment was “relevant six months ago, it is not relevant today because Iran has been running these centrifuges for at least six months”?.
The UN inspector added, however, that “there’s a big difference between acquiring the knowledge for enrichment and developing a bomb”?.
He said Iran could install an industrial scale capacity of 3,000 centrifuges – enough to begin producing fissile material for a bomb – within months.
“It could be six months, it could be a year,”? he said, emphasising his desire for negotiations to convince Iran to hold back. “The ideal situation is to make sure that there is no industrial capacity, that there is full inspection [of Iran’s nuclear facilities].”?
He added that Iran had already installed a “cascade”? of 164 centrifuges in the subterranean facility designed to produce enriched uranium on an industrial scale, and that Iran’s experiments with two further 164-centrifuge cascades in the pilot programme were functioning.
In a sign of additional international pressure, Russia was reported by Reuters on Monday as delaying the building of Iran’s first nuclear power plant.