WASHINGTON — Intelligence officials from several countries say Iran in recent weeks has virtually completed an underground nuclear enrichment plant, racing ahead despite international pressure and heavy economic sanctions in what experts say may be an effort to give it leverage in any negotiations with the United States and its allies.
The installation of the last of nearly 3,000 centrifuges at a site called Fordo, deep under a mountain inside a military base near the holy city of Qum, puts Iran closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon, or come up to the edge, if its leaders ultimately decide to proceed.
The United States, Israel and the United Nations have all vowed to prevent that from happening, imposing increasingly tough sanctions on the country and using cyberwarfare to slow its progress in obtaining a weapon. President Obama said last week that the time for a negotiated settlement was “running out.”
Talks this year between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — have made little progress. The New York Times reported Sunday that the United States and Iran had reached an agreement in principle to hold direct talks after the American presidential election. Mr. Obama denied the report but said in Monday’s debate with Mitt Romney that he was open to such talks.
Iran’s progress at Fordo was disclosed by officials familiar with the findings of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who have been to the site recently as part of their regular visits. The officials included some from European governments who have opposed taking military action to slow the Iranian program, arguing that sanctions — with a mix of covert action — are far preferable.
The report comes at a moment when Iran has emerged as a point of contention in the foreign policy debates surrounding the approaching election. Mr. Romney has charged that the president has been “weak” on Iran, and said that Iran’s production of nuclear material had expanded greatly during Mr. Obama’s tenure. But he also embraced diplomacy in the debate on Monday.
Asked about the intelligence reports, Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “While we can’t comment on a report that has yet to be released, we remain concerned about Iran’s defiance of its international obligations.” He noted that “the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and continues to believe there is time and space for diplomacy.”
Until just two months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel suggested he would not allow the Fordo plant to go into operation, warning that once it did Iran would have begun to enter a “zone of immunity” where it could produce nuclear fuel without fear of an Israeli strike. Israel does not possess the bunker-busting bombs that would be needed to destroy the facility, though the United States does have one weapon that can do the job: the “massive ordnance penetrator” that just entered the American arsenal.
In September, however, Israeli officials suddenly stopped using the “zone of immunity” phrase, and Mr. Netanyanu told the United Nations that he could wait until late spring before any taking military action, saying that was when Iran would be on the cusp of the ability to produce a bomb. European and American officials interpreted that announcement as evidence that Mr. Netanyahu concluded that Israel could not get through the more than 200 feet of rock over the Fordo plant without American help.
The prospect of a renewed round of diplomacy may explain the pace of activity at the underground site. The fact that the Fordo plant is approaching full operation, shortening the amount of time it would need to build a weapon, gives Iran added ability to exert pressure on the United States and its allies. “When slapped with new sanctions,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official who now studies the Iranian program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, “Iran typically likes to pick up the pace of its enrichment work to try to show that it can’t be pressured into submission.”
The installation of the last centrifuges at Fordo represents a milestone for the Iranians that the Obama administration hoped to avoid. In September 2009, Mr. Obama, along with the leaders of Britain and France, revealed the existence of the site, in an effort to galvanize international efforts to stop Iran’s program. His top national security aides predicted that the public exposure would force Iran to abandon the plant.
While that did not happen, a senior administration official said Thursday that the exposure of the plant’s existence three years ago “eliminated its use as a ‘sneak out’ venue,” because it forced Iran to allow inspectors inside the facility. “Sneak out” is a phrase that connotes covert production of bomb fuel, while “break out” is used to describe a race for a bomb. Mr. Obama, in the Monday debate, insisted that “we have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity,” a phrase that left many thinking that was the line he would not let Iran cross.
While the plant is not yet fully running — fewer than half of all its centrifuges are spinning out enriched uranium — Iran could have it doing so within months, officials say. Fordo is designed to make “medium enriched” fuel that is relatively close to bomb grade, and American officials worry that, in a relatively short amount of time, that fuel could be converted to a type suitable for weapons. But as Mr. Vietor noted, with inspectors visiting, “We are in a position to closely observe Iran’s program and detect any effort by Iran to begin production of weapons-grade uranium.”
In August, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Fordo was roughly three-quarters complete, and that Iran had installed 2,140 centrifuges there, a doubling since a previous report three months before.
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