Iran is about to celebrate its March 21 New Year in a nuclear – though not a big – way. The uranium conversion plant at Esfahan, which will produce UF-6, a gas used for uranium enrichment, will be operational in a few weeks. That will be the New Year’s gift to the nation that Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei intends to announce.
Two years ago, Iran secretly purchased large quantities of UF-6 from China in violation of Teheran’s commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. US intervention with Beijing halted the shipments. Now, thanks to the Esfahan facility, Iran will no longer be dependent on foreign suppliers.
The plant will also manufacture centrifuge units that can be used to make weapons-grade uranium. The units are to be taken to the Kala Electric factory in a north Teheran suburb for testing. Kala, ostensibly a factory for watches, is located several dozen kilometers from the Moallem Kalayeh complex of underground chambers where Iran is reported to have built secret nuclear facilities.
All this has the United States worried. Washington has no doubt Iran intends to achieve a high level of centrifuge expertise so that it can make highly enriched uranium for nuclear bombs.
The latest developments follow a visit to Teheran last month by Mohamed El Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who was shown a building under construction for a uranium enrichment facility near Natanz. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say the Iranians made sure he did not spot the telltale signs that the facility would be used to produce weapons-grade uranium.
One giveaway would have been the presence of a large number of centrifuges, such as are required to enrich uranium to a degree of 85 to 90 percent. However, back in August, Iranian leaders ordered some of those centrifuges to be dismantled, after their intelligence services reported the discovery by Israel and the United States that the enrichment plant was under construction, labeled officially as a anti-desertification project although it was going up in a particularly lush region.
By the time El Baradei showed up, he could see only enough centrifuges for uranium enrichment of 10 percent. Part of the stock was hidden behind a dividing wall beyond which the nuclear inspector was denied access.
Surprisingly, El Baradei gave the miss to another suspect facility, the heavy water plant under construction in the city of Arak, some 150 miles (240 km) south of Tehran. After Iran’s nuclear program was exposed, work at Arak was suspended for a time as authorities looked for ways to continue to fool the world. Iran subsequently decided last summer to stop installing the equipment necessary for large-scale heavy water production. Instead, it opted for small-scale production that will be gradually increased as international interest in Iran’s nuclear weapons project wanes.
The engineer in charge of the project has been identified as Behnam Asgar-pour.
Meanwhile, uranium mining is proceeding at full speed at the Chadramlou quarry in the Saghand region near the city of Kashan. Dr. Ghassem Soleimani is the head of this project, assisted by chief production engineer Mehdi Kabir-zadeh.
Over the past few months, Iran has secretly hosted groups of nuclear experts from North Korea, China, Pakistan and Russia. They came to help establish a minimum size for an Iranian nuclear bomb and look into the production of radiological, or “dirty”, atomic devices for terrorist use. The results of the visits are still unclear. But Iran is seriously interested in producing a lightweight, miniaturized bomb suitable for terrorists and delivery from small aircraft or drones.