Iran May Run Centrifuges in Bunker 03/27 06:07
The United States is considering letting Tehran run hundreds of centrifuges
at a once-secret, fortified underground bunker in exchange for limits on
centrifuge work and research and development at other sites, officials have
told The Associated Press.
LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) -- The United States is considering letting
Tehran run hundreds of centrifuges at a once-secret, fortified underground
bunker in exchange for limits on centrifuge work and research and development
at other sites, officials have told The Associated Press.
The trade-off would allow Iran to run several hundred of the devices at its
Fordo facility, although the Iranians would not be allowed to do work that
could lead to an atomic bomb and the site would be subject to international
inspections, according to Western officials familiar with details of
negotiations now underway. In return, Iran would be required to scale back the
number of centrifuges it runs at its Natanz facility and accept other
restrictions on nuclear-related work.
Instead of uranium, which can be enriched to be the fissile core of a
nuclear weapon, any centrifuges permitted at Fordo would be fed elements such
as zinc, xenon or germanium for separating out isotopes used in medicine,
industry or science, the officials said. The number of centrifuges would not be
enough to produce the amount of uranium needed to produce a weapon within a
year --- the minimum time-frame that Washington and its negotiating partners
The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not
authorized to discuss details of the sensitive negotiations as the latest round
of talks began Friday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian
Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and their teams. The negotiators are
racing to meet an end-of-March deadline to reach an outline of an agreement
that would grant Iran relief from international sanctions in exchange for
curbing its nuclear program. The deadline for a final agreement is June 30.
One senior U.S. official declined to comment on the specific proposal but
said the goal since the beginning of the talks has been "to have Fordo
converted so it's not being used to enrich uranium." That official would not
The officials stressed that the potential compromise on Fordo is just one of
several options on a menu of highly technical equations being discussed in the
talks. All of the options are designed to keep Iran at least a year away from
producing an atomic weapon for the life of the agreement, which will run for at
least 10 years. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has joined the last several
rounds as the negotiations have gotten more technical.
Experts say the compromise for Fordo could still be problematic. They note
it would allow Iran to keep intact technology that could be quickly repurposed
for uranium enrichment at a sensitive facility that the U.S. and its allies
originally wanted stripped of all such machines --- centrifuges that can spin
uranium gas into uses ranging from reactor fuel to weapons-grade material.
And the issue of inspector access and verification is key. Iran has resisted
"snap inspections" in the past. Even as the nuclear talks have made progress,
Iran has yet to satisfy questions about its past possible nuclear-related
military activity. The fact that questions about such activity, known as
Possible Military Dimensions, or PMDs, remain unresolved is a serious concern
for the U.N. atomic watchdog.
In addition, the site at Fordo is a particular concern because it is
hardened and dug deeply into a mountainside making it resistant --- possibly
impervious --- to air attack. Such an attack is an option that neither Israel
nor the U.S. has ruled out in case the talks fail.
And while too few to be used for proliferation by themselves, even a few
hundred extra centrifuges at Fordo would be a concern when looked at in the
context of total numbers.
Robert Menendez, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
said such a compromise demonstrates that the U.S. is negotiating "any deal for
a deal's sake."
"An undue amount of trust and faith is being placed in a negotiating partner
that has spent decades deceiving the international community," denying
inspectors access and actively destabilizing the region, he said.
As negotiations stand, the number of centrifuges would grow to more than
6,000, when the other site is included. Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the
Iran nuclear file as a deputy director general of the U.N's International
Atomic Energy Agency until 2010, says even 6,000 operating centrifuges would be
"a big number."
Asked of the significance of hundreds more at Fordo, he said, "Every machine
Iran reported the site to the IAEA six years ago in what Washington says was
an attempt to pre-empt President Barack Obama and the prime ministers of
Britain and France going public with its existence a few days later. Tehran
later used the site to enrich uranium to a level just a technical step away
from weapons-grade until late 2013, when it froze its nuclear program under a
temporary arrangement that remains in effect as the sides negotiate.
Twice extended, the negotiations have turned into a U.S.-Iran tug-of-war
over how many of the machines Iran would be allowed to operate since the talks
resumed over two years ago. Tehran denies nuclear weapons ambitions, saying it
wants to enrich only for energy, scientific and medical purposes.
Washington has taken the main negotiating role with Tehran in talks that
formally remain between Iran and six world powers, and officials told the AP at
last week's round that the two sides were zeroing in on a cap of 6,000
centrifuges at Natanz, Iran's main enrichment site.
That's fewer than the nearly 10,000 Tehran now runs at Natanz, yet
substantially more than the 500 to 1,500 that Washington originally wanted as a
ceiling. Only a year ago, U.S. officials floated 4,000 as a possible compromise.
One of the officials said discussions focus on an extra 480 centrifuges at
Fordo. That would potentially bring the total number of machines to close to
David Albright of Washington's Institute for Security and International
Security says a few hundred centrifuges operated by the Iranians would not be a
huge threat --- if they were anywhere else but the sensitive Fordo site.
Beyond its symbolic significance, "it keeps the infrastructure in place and
keeps a leg up, if they want to restart (uranium) enrichment operations," said
Albright, who is a go-to person on the Iran nuclear issue for the U.S.