VIENNA – The U.N. nuclear agency has told member nations that Iran is poised for a major technological upgrade of its uranium enrichment program, in a document seen Thursday by The Associated Press. The move would vastly speed up Tehran's ability to make material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads.
In an internal note to member nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it received notice last week from Iran's nuclear agency of plans to install high-technology enriching centrifuges at its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran. The machines are estimated to be able to enrich up to five times faster than the present equipment.
The brief note quoted Iran as saying new-generation IR2m "centrifuge machines ...will be used" to populate a new "unit" -- a technical term for an assembly that can consist of as many as 3,132 centrifuges.
It gave no timeframe and a senior diplomat familiar with the issue said work had not started, adding it would take weeks, if not months, to have the new machines running once technicians started putting them in. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge confidential information.
Phone calls seeking comment from Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's chief IAEA delegate, went to his voice mail.
The planned upgrade deals a further blow to international efforts to coax Tehran to restore confidence in its aims by scaling back its nuclear activities and cooperating with agency attempts to investigate allegations of secret weapons work.
It complicates planned talks next month during which the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany are expected to press Tehran to cut back on uranium enrichment, and Iran is likely to seek relief from sanctions cutting into its oil sales and financial transactions.
Iran may be hoping that its tough line on enrichment will force further concessions from the six, which over the past year have scaled down their demands from a total enrichment freeze to a stop of Iran's higher enrichment program.
Yousaf Butt, a consultant to the Federation of American Scientists, said Iran was "using the only leverage it has -- its enrichment program -- as a means to coax some sanctions relief." But Tehran's tough stance may instead backfire and dash any chance that the six will offer to ease sanctions.
Indirectly criticizing the Iranian plan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted Thursday that Moscow and its fellow U.N. Security Council members "have called on Iran to freeze enrichment operations during the negotiations."
Separately from those talks, IAEA experts are scheduled to visit Tehran Feb. 13 in their more than year-long effort to restart a probe of the weapons allegations.
Iran insists it does not want nuclear arms and argues it has a right to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear power program. But suspicion persists that the real aim is nuclear weapons, because Iran hid much of its program until it was revealed from the outside more than a decade ago and because of what the IAEA says are indications that it worked secretly on weapons development.
Defying U.N. Security Council demands that it halt uranium enrichment, Iran has instead expanded it. Experts say Tehran already has enough enriched uranium to be able to turn into weapons-grade material for several nuclear weapons.
Non-proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick described the planned upgrade as a potential "game-changer."
"If thousands of the more efficient machines are introduced, the timeline for being able to produce a weapon's worth of fissile material will significantly shorten," said Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"This won't change the several months it would take to make actual weapons out of the fissile material or the two years or more that it would take to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, so there is no need to start beating the war drums," he said. "But it will certainly escalate concerns."
A Western diplomat accredited to the U.N. agency said IAEA delegation heads from the U.S. and its allies exchanged views over Iran's plans Thursday and agreed to await further developments. He, too, demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the issue.
Iran says it is enriching only to power reactors and for scientific and medical purposes. But because of its nuclear secrecy, many countries fear that Iran may break out from its present production that is below the weapons-grade threshold and start enriching uranium to levels of over 90 percent, used to arm nuclear weapons.
Tehran now has more than 10,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at its main plant at Natanz, 140 miles southeast of Tehran, to fuel grade at below 4 percent. Its separate Fordo facility, southwest of Tehran, has close to 3,000 centrifuges -- most of them active and producing material enriched to 20 percent, which can be turned into weapons-grade uranium much more quickly.
Iran has depended on domestically made and breakdown-prone IR-1 centrifuges whose design is decades-old at both locations up to now, but started testing more sophisticated prototypes in the summer of 2010.
David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Technology serves as a resource for some U.S. government branches, estimated in a 2011 report that 1,000 of the advanced machines "would be equivalent to about 4,000-5,000 IR-1 centrifuges" in production speed.