U.S. and European officials have been saying for
years that Iran is using its publicly declared nuclear program as a cover for
a clandestine nuclear weapons program, but have never produced concrete evidence
to support that argument.
Since April, however, Western suspicions of such a secret bomb program have
focused on the idea that Iran has an underground uranium enrichment program
based on the P-2 centrifuge, which is more advanced than the P-1 centrifuge
that was used to achieve a 3.5 percent level of uranium enrichment last April.
In a story on April 17, one week after that accomplishment was announced by
Iran, New York Times reporters William
J. Broad and David E. Sanger wrote, "Western analysts long suspected
that Iran had a second, secret program based on black market offerings
of the renegade Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan separate
from the activity at its main nuclear facility at Natanz. But they had no proof."
Broad and Sanger suggested that the more advanced P-2 centrifuges on which
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had said was "under the process of research
and test" might be the basis for a secret uranium enrichment program. The
Iranian leader's remark, they wrote, could indicate that Iran's relationship
with the Pakistani nuclear network "went on longer and was far deeper than
The P-2 centrifuge design that came from the Khan network is rated in enrichment
efficiency as a 5 compared with somewhere between a 1 and 3 for the P-1, according
to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard's
Belfer Center. If they were operational in large numbers, that could spell much
faster progress toward the amount of uranium enrichment required for bomb-making.
But the specter of a clandestine P-2 enrichment program paralleling the declared
P-1 progress at Natanz is not supported by leading independent specialists or
by what is known about the history of Iran's nuclear program.
David Albright, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Science
and International Security, has long been extremely skeptical of Iran's public
declarations about its nuclear policy. But in an interview with IPS, he said
there is "not much evidence" of a clandestine P-2 enrichment program,
adding, "I don't see any evidence of a large P-2 centrifuge plant."
London's International Institute for Strategic Studies produced a report last
year referring to suspicions that the P-2 centrifuge was "the nucleus of
a secret enrichment program." Nevertheless, Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior
specialist on Iran's nuclear program at the IISS, told IPS there is "no
evidence" of a P-2 program that could enrich uranium any time soon, and
that Iran has focused on enriching uranium with P-1 centrifuges.
When Robert Joseph, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international
security, discussed the threat from Iranian uranium enrichment on March 8, he
focused entirely on Iran's publicly declared P-1 program
Suspicion of Iran's nuclear policy has been provoked by Tehran's tendency to
withhold important information about its nuclear programs from the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) even after it had pledged in October 2003 to provide
a complete and accurate account of what it had concealed for nearly two decades.
Hassan Rowhani, the longtime secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security
Council, admitted in a speech to high-ranking Iranian clerics in the autumn
of 2004 that this tendency had been damaging to Iran's interests. Referring
to uranium enrichment, he said, "If we had done it openly, the problem
would have been far simpler."
Instead, since October 2003, the IAEA has repeatedly found evidence of nuclear
activities that Iran had not declared.
The most serious of those discoveries involved the P-2 centrifuge. After details
of Libya's purchases from A.Q. Khan network were revealed to the IAEA in 2003,
Iran had to acknowledge that it had purchased drawings of a P-2 centrifuge in
1995 from the same network.
Iran decided against reliance on the P-2 centrifuge, however. What Sri Lankan
businessman Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, who was a key part of Khan's network, has
revealed under interrogation since early 2004 indicates that Iran never placed
a significant order for the P-2. It is not even clear that it obtained even
a single P-2 centrifuge from the network.
On Jan. 21, 2006, Agence France-Presse published a story based on an unnamed
Western diplomatic source, alleging that had told Western interrogators of three
shipments of one P-2 centrifuge each to Iran in 1997. But that story is shrouded
in doubt and ambiguity.
IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei revealed in a February 2005 interview
that the IAEA had already had "an extended conversation" with Tahir.
But apparently Tahir said nothing about P-2 shipments to Iran when he was interviewed
by the IAEA. IAEA reports show that the IAEA did not ask Iran about what it
called "possible delivery" of P-2 centrifuge components until November
Both a State Department official and an IAEA source told Arms Control Today
that Tahir could not provide any documentation for the claim.
David Albright, who has long had excellent contacts in IAEA, told IPS that
Tahir "believes [the Iranians] got samples of P-2 from salesmen in Dubai"
but "can't say that they arrived in Iran." Iran has insisted that
it neither ordered nor received any P-2 centrifuges from the Khan network or
any other intermediary.
Iran has also claimed to the IAEA that it did no work on the P-2 centrifuge
from the time it received the drawings of the P-2 centrifuge in 1995 until it
contracted with a private company to produce a revised design for the P-2 and
test it without using gas. The IAEA has expressed doubt about that assertion,
indicating that the modifications done on the original could not have been achieved
in such a short time.
Iran was undoubtedly doing other research work on the P-2 during the 1995-2002
period. Nevertheless, the evidence supports the broader claim by Iran that it
had decided to develop the P-1 rather than the P-2 during that period.
According to Iran's October 2003 declaration to the IAEA, between 1997 and
2002, Iran had begun to operate small cascades of 10-20 P-1 machines. And early
in that period, Iran decided to construct an enrichment facilities at Natanz
based on the P-1 centrifuge, rather than the P-2.
Journalist Mark Hibbs, writing in Nuclear Fuel last February, reported
that Iran told the IAEA last year that it chose to use the P-1 as its mainstay
because it had encountered difficulties in finishing a crucial component of
both the P-1 and the P-2: the bottom bearing. Hibbs wrote that manufacturing
the bearings correctly requires highly sophisticated machine tools that are
not generally available outside a few advanced industrialized countries.
The P-1 centrifuges that Iran acquired from the A.Q. Khan network were known
to be prone to excessive vibration, because the Pakistanis had not yet mastered
the bottom bearings in those early years.
Iran has made no secret of the fact it is pursuing research on the P-2. In
a press conference on Jun. 2, 2004, Rowhani said that research on the P-2 had
had not yet been completed, and that Iran "would decide on producing P2
parts whenever pertinent research is completed."
But Tehran has not responded to IAEA inquiries about the status of P-2 research
since Ahmadinejad's April 11 remarks. A source close to the IAEA told IPS Monday
that this silence may reflect Iran's backtracking from its 2003 pledge to implement
the Additional Protocol requiring reporting on such activities.
That Iranian move was a response to the U.S.-EU initiative to refer Iran to
the UN Security Council last March. "It's all part of the diplomatic game,"
said the source.
(Inter Press Service)