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USA TODAY February 22, 2005

Natanz plant in Iran is focus of nuclear concerns

By Barbara Slavin

NATANZ URANIUM ENRICHMENT PLANT, Iran -- Buried under brown mounds that blend perfectly into the craggy desert landscape, Iran's largest known nuclear facility is recognizable from the road only because it is surrounded by watchtowers and anti-aircraft batteries.

Its existence was revealed to outsiders three years ago by an Iranian opposition group. The Natanz facility, about 160 miles south of Tehran, is big enough to hold 50,000 centrifuges and could produce enough uranium for 25 10-kiloton nuclear bombs a year, according to David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank specializing in nuclear issues.

Last year, Iran suspended construction of centrifuges under terms of an agreement with three European nations. But Natanz remains a focus of suspicion and concern because of its size and military potential.

In a speech Monday in Brussels, President Bush warned Iran that it "must not develop nuclear weapons." He said the United States would continue to favor a diplomatic approach to the issue but "no option can be taken permanently off the table" to prevent Iran from becoming the world's 10th nuclear weapons state.

Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, denies any intention to make weapons and says its program is designed to make enriched uranium to fuel nuclear power plants. "We will never use such weapons; therefore, they have no utility for us," says Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was Iran's president from 1989 to 1997 and is a favorite to get the job again in elections in June.

Iran has agreed to a temporary suspension of enrichment efforts while it negotiates with three European nations -- Britain, France and Germany -- for increased trade ties and other concessions. Those talks, which began in December, are unlikely to make much progress before the elections.

A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, conducted a routine inspection of Natanz this month. The IAEA says it has no evidence that Iran is conducting weapons work at the site.

"Natanz is a frozen facility," said Mark Gwozdecky, an IAEA spokesman in Vienna. "The inspectors' job is to ensure that the suspension is in force." The United States and other Western governments aren't so sure about Natanz.

One reason is that Iran has refused to give IAEA inspectors visas that would allow them to come and go for frequent checks on the facility. Delays in providing visas to IAEA inspectors could give Iran time to scrub facilities suspected of carrying on nuclear work.

Western officials worry that Iran can continue to perfect its centrifuge technology even under the eye of the inspectors.

"Even with intrusive IAEA inspections at Natanz, there is a serious risk that Iran could use its enrichment technology in covert activities," George Tenet, then-CIA director, told Congress in March.

Iran failed last year to get European agreement to be able to continue work on a project for 20 centrifuges at Natanz. In addition, IAEA officials say Iran recently upgraded 164 centrifuges at Natanz and described the operation as routine maintenance, according to the Associated Press. Albright says it is possible Iran has other facilities where it continues centrifuge work.

There is broad public discontent with Iran's Islamic government, but little or no popular sentiment against the country's nuclear development program. "Iran should have nuclear knowledge but not the bomb," says Hossein Ibrahim, a clerk in a hardware store in Tehran. He, like many other Iranians interviewed here, says Iran needs the capability for nuclear energy andto deter enemies from attacking.

Hossein Moussavian, a top negotiator with the Europeans on the nuclear issue, says Iran "already has achieved the capability and know-how for all enrichment processes." It needs enrichment capability to ensure it can supply fuel for a power reactor nearing completion at Bushehr and 20 others it would like to construct, he says.

After Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, Germany halted work on the Bushehr reactor, despite the fact Iran had paid billions for it. As a result, "we have to diversify (uranium) sources," Moussavian says. "We have had a very bad experience with Europe. . . . No one can guarantee this would not happen again."

Moussavian says Iran will guarantee it is not making weapons. It is willing to remain a member of the non-proliferation treaty and give the IAEA access to all nuclear sites, he says. In return, he says, Iran wants an end to its isolation by Europe and "full engagement" in political, security, economic and technological fields.

"If we have 100 billion euros in European investment in Iran, and if we have Iranian investment in Europe, Iran would never even think to divert the nuclear enrichment because the damage would be huge for Iran," he says.

The Bush administration has supported the European efforts but refuses to take part directly.

Philip Gordon, an expert on Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, describes the U.S. policy as one of "malevolent neglect." By not joining the talks, he says, the administration can say "I told you so" if they fail. The Europeans, he says, will say "the reason they failed is because the United States did not join us."

Geoffrey Kemp, an Iran specialist at the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank, says U.S. ambivalence will be exploited by the Iranians.

Unless the United States and Europe work together, Iran will be able to wring concessions from the Europeans -- and continue developing nuclear arms, he says. "Without a combined approach with the Europeans, the Iranians will drive a truck between the two sides and come out a winner."

Kemp says the United States should make clear what it is prepared to give Iran in return for indefinite suspension of Iran's enrichment program.

Possible carrots for Iran from the United States: help joining the World Trade Organization; the sale of spare parts for Iran's decrepit fleet of Boeing airliners; and the unfreezing of Iranian assets held in the USA.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, B/W, USA TODAY; PHOTO, B/W, DigitalGlobe via GlobalSecurity.org; GRAPHIC, B/W, USA TODAY (MAP); Satellite image: This picture from Aug. 29, 2002, shows facilities in Natanz, Iran. The enrichment plant could produce enough uranium for 25 nuclear bombs a year, Washington analyst David Albright says. Moussavian: Iran needs capability.


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