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Iran Broadens Search for Raw Uranium: Intel

February 25, 2011

An intelligence assessment by an International Atomic Energy Agency member nation says Iran has broadened its secretive worldwide effort to secure unrefined uranium for its atomic work, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Feb. 23).

The finding fits with estimates that indigenous sources of raw uranium were insufficient for the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear activities, according to AP. The United States and its allies have expressed concern that Iran’s uranium enrichment program could generate nuclear-weapon material, but Tehran has maintained its atomic efforts are geared strictly toward civilian endeavors.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi held an undisclosed meeting in January with high-level managers of mineral extraction in Zimbabwe “to resume negotiations … for the benefit of Iran’s uranium procurement plan,” the document states.

“This follows work carried out by Iranian engineers to map out uranium deposits in Africa and assess the amount of uranium they contain,” according to its two-page summary.

Salehi’s trip is an example of Iranian uranium acquisition activities that could encompass more than 12 nations in Africa, according to an official from another IAEA member state.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog within days is expected to release its next safeguards report on Iran’s atomic operations. That report might again cite long-suspected military nuclear experiments conducted in Iran, AP reported (George Jahn, Associated Press I/Washington Post, Feb. 24).

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Iran was capable of conducting a nuclear test within 12 months if the nation made a focused drive to achieve the goal, Agence France-Presse reported yesterday.

Still, acquiring the means to deploy a nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile would take Iran “several years,” Barak said.

“It’s clear they had certain holdups along the way and they are moving slower than expected,” the official told CNN. “But the painful fact is they keep moving forward. They are overcoming gradually the difficulties they faced. They don’t get tired of it.”

Computer malware might be to blame for some obstacles in Iran’s atomic drive, Barak said. Israel is suspected of having a hand in unleashing the Stuxnet virus believed to have infected Iranian nuclear sites.

“But there were many kinds of problems,” Barak said. “The fact of the matter is they continue to accumulate more and more on uranium and a midlevel enriched uranium … and that should be disturbing to us” (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Feb. 23).

A pair of U.S. think tanks in recent months offered differing estimates of Iran’s uranium enrichment progress, Nature reported yesterday.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security in a Feb. 15 report asserted the Stuxnet computer worm had wiped out roughly 1,000 enrichment centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz complex.

Then-Federation of American Scientists analyst Ivanka Barzashka, though, authored an assessment emphasizing an assessed significant increase in the output of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges in 2010.

The organizations diverged in estimating the speed of Iran’s next-generation IR-1 centrifuges.

Each IR-1 “separative work unit” generated enriched uranium at a rate of .77 kilograms per year in 2010, according to Barzashka’s report, which cites figures obtained though IAEA monitoring. ISIS head David Albright placed that figure at .9 per year, referring to official data not obtainable by other analysts.

“The one thing we’ve learned from the Iraq debacle is that you have to have technical debates; everyone’s assumptions have to be challenged,” former ISIS analyst Jacqueline Shire said, referring to prewar claims about Iraq’s unconventional weapons capabilities (see GSN, Feb. 17).

Becoming “bogged down in SWU numbers” can distract from the central problem, added Shire, a member of the U.N. Panel of Experts that examines the impact of economic penalties on Iran.

“One can very easily start to get buried in minutiae and lose sight of the big picture,” she said, “which is to stop Iran from enriching uranium, and think creatively about how to do that” (Sharon Weinberger, Nature, Feb. 23).

Elsewhere, North Korea on Tuesday said it shared “one trench” with Iran in their opposition to “arrogant powers,” a likely allusion to the United States, the Associated Press reported (see related GSN story, today).

Tehran’s strengthening ties with Pyongyang were “a thorn in the eyes of world’s arrogant powers,” North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Pak Kil Yon said during talks with Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi (Associated Press II/Washington Post, Feb. 23).

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