David Blair – Telegraph.co.uk June 8, 2009
Month by month, experts chart how Iran installs more centrifuges inside its underground plant in Natanz, where these machines are used to enrich uranium. This highly sensitive process, which breaches five UN Resolutions, could be used either to produce fuel for nuclear power stations – or the essential material for an atomic bomb.
Inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency are the crucial guarantee that Iran has not chosen the latter course. "As long as we are monitoring their facilities, they cannot develop nuclear weapons," said Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director, in a recent interview.
Thanks to the safeguards regime, the inspectors who monitor Natanz have always been able to report that Iran's scientists are not enriching uranium to weapons-grade.
But the Natanz plant is growing rapidly, with Iran adding 984 operational centrifuges since February, bringing the total to 4,920, with another 2,301 in various stages of preparation.
In its latest report, the IAEA said that "given the increasing number" of centrifuges, "improvements to the containment and surveillance measures at the Fuel Enrichment Plant are required in order for the Agency to continue fully to meet its safeguards objectives".
Sources said the inspectors were finding it increasingly difficult to monitor Natanz because of the facility's rapid expansion. Cameras have been installed to cover the plant's work, but they need adjusting to keep the new centrifuges under surveillance. Some parts of Natanz are under construction, others are in full operation and the cameras need to be trained on the right locations.
The IAEA report said that inspectors had "proposed a solution and initiated discussions with Iran". In particular, they are believed to want Iran to allow "remote monitoring" of Natanz.
At present, Iran's officials will not allow the cameras to beam their pictures directly to the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna. Instead, the inspectors must travel all the way to Natanz to download the footage.
As long ago as February 2007, the IAEA asked for "remote monitoring" and said this would become necessary when Iran was running more than 500 centrifuges. That threshold was crossed more than two years ago and, today, almost ten times that number of machines are operating. But the cameras are still not allowed to send live footage to Vienna.
Mark Fitzpatrick, the senior fellow in non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said this had been an "ongoing problem". The lack of "real time monitoring" of Natanz meant the safeguards in place may not "give a timely warning" if Iran diverted its enrichment efforts towards making a nuclear weapon.
So far, the IAEA is still able to guarantee that Iran has not taken this step. The latest report says that all centrifuges and nuclear materials "remain under Agency containment and surveillance". The question is whether this assurance will remain valid if Iran does not agree to improve the safeguards regime.
"If Iran continues to refuse to allow remote monitoring of Natanz, as well as to refuse to clear up the other areas of concern such as the design information the IAEA has asked for, then there will be a loss of confidence in Iran," said Mr Fitzpatrick.
Last updated 11/06/2009