Analysts: Iran's claims of testing P-2 centrifuge may be a bluff

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's president has thrown a new wrinkle into the nuclear debate by claiming his country is testing a centrifuge that could be used to more speedily create fuel for power plants or atomic weapons.

But some analysts familiar with the country's technology said Monday that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be deliberately exaggerating Iran's capabilities, either to boost his own political support or to persuade the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to back off.

The U.N. Security Council has demanded that Iran cease enrichment work, which the United States and some of its allies suspect is meant to produce weapons. But Russia and China, two of the council's five veto-holding members, have opposed punishing Iran.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Monday the Kremlin insists on a diplomatic solution to the standoff rather than any tough measures against Iran. A Western diplomat said officials of the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany would discuss the matter in Moscow today.

Ahmadinejad, in a speech to students last week, claimed for the first time that Iran is testing a P-2 centrifuge for enriching uranium. Such a device would be a vast improvement over the P-1 centrifuges that Iran says it has used to do small-scale enrichment.

Iran previously told the International Atomic Energy Agency it gave up all work on P-2 centrifuges three years ago. It was not clear if Iran has been doing work all along on the updated model, or recently restarted efforts, or even if Ahmadinejad's comment was accurate.

But his assertion is sure to raise concerns that Iran might have a more sophisticated atomic program than had been believed. The IAEA and some independent groups have long questioned whether Iran might have a parallel, secret nuclear program that is further along.

"Our centrifuges are P-1 type. P-2, which has quadruple the capacity, now is under the process of research and test in the country," Ahmadinejad told students in remarks that weren't reported by the official Iranian news agency but were later found on the presidential Web site.

Iran insists it is building up a nuclear program only for peaceful purposes -- to generate electricity. But the United States and many of its allies think the Iranians want nuclear weapons.

Iran has come under pressure in recent months to halt all uranium enrichment, but Ahmadinejad is adamant it will press forward.

"He was likely posturing for his own political advantage and playing to national sentiment. We have to remember that the nuclear issue is very popular in Iran," said Khalid R. al-Rodhan, an Iran nuclear expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Anthony Cordesman, an expert also at CSIS in Washington, said there was no way to gauge if Ahmadinejad's statement was true, or if true, how significant that would be.

"Just making a claim about individual technical developments doesn't tell you a thing about what progress has really been made, or how it would change their operational capabilities," Cordesman said.

Officials at the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog based in Vienna, Austria, refused to comment.

The IAEA has believed for some time that Iran obtained the plans for a P-2 centrifuge. Some experts believe the designs were in Iranian hands as long ago as the late 1980s through a black-market network run by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.

Iran previously told the IAEA that the only work it had done on the P-2 design was carried out between 2002 and 2003 and was very limited. It also said the work was halted in 2003, when Iran went back to the P-1 design.

But the IAEA has repeatedly questioned that claim and accused Iran of not coming clean on past efforts.

"We know that they have had the drawings for P-2 centrifuge and they've publicized that," said Gary Sick, professor of international affairs at Columbia University and a former adviser to the U.S. National Security Council.

"But up till now, they have said that they were not in fact pursuing that path. If in fact Ahmadinejad said that, it is a significant change," Sick said.

A diplomat in Vienna who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because he was not authorized to speak with reporters, said if Iran has secretly developed its P-2 program, that could mean it will be able to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium faster and in greater quantities than previously thought.

The latest estimate from the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies says Iran could not create a bomb before the next decade. But that analysis was based on Tehran using P-1 centrifuges.

Associated Press writer George Jahn in Vienna, Austria, contributed to this report.

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