Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - AP.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo by AP
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Iran is suspected of secretly enriching uranium with the help of lasers, a program it says it ceased in 2003, according to a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Iran only admits to enriching uranium via centrifuges.

The institute says Iran is still developing laser technology for enriching uranium. It notes accelerated construction at a site where this type of enrichment was once performed, and mentions then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2010 statement that Iran had the ability to enrich uranium via laser isotope separation.

Based in part on images from commercial satellites, the institute notes the expansion of the Lashkar Ab'ad facility, where laser-assisted enrichment experiments have been done in the past. The facility was exposed in 2003 and later investigated by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran later announced that it had no intention of enriching uranium using laser technology, and IAEA agents who visited the facility said laser technology there was for civilian purposes. In February 2010, Ahmadinejad said Iran would for the time being enrich uranium using centrifuges rather than lasers, but the institute says the issue must be investigated considering Iran’s record of false statements.

The institute says Iran is taking steps to conceal the connection between the Lashkar Ab’ad facility and other organizations involved in laser technology, one of which has been subject to sanctions by the United States and the European Union.

The institute recommends that as long as Iran does not provide answers to the IAEA, it should be prevented from enriching uranium using lasers; one means would be additional sanctions on organizations and individuals involved in the field. The institute calls on governments to act immediately to prevent the transfer of laser technology and equipment to Iran.

The method of enriching uranium by exposing its vapors to laser beams was developed in Israel in 1969 by two young scientists: Prof. Menahem Levin of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Yeshayahu Nebenzahl. The two sought to patent the invention, but the state forbade them.

A few years later they discovered that the secret had leaked to the United States and that an Exxon subsidiary had built a facility using this method. The two professors later received monetary compensation after suing the state for not letting them take out a patent.

In any case, the method is expensive, requiring hundreds of tons of uranium. Iran began trying to enrich uranium using lasers under the Shah, when American companies were eager to sell Tehran nuclear technology of all types, including reactors, enriched uranium and laser laboratories.

The experiments went on secretly during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who revived Iran's nuclear program in the 1990s. These experiments were exposed only in 2003 following visits by IAEA agents.

In 2007 Yossi Melman, writing for Haaretz, assessed that Iran had not achieved a breakthrough on the laser method. He said it was hard to believe that after the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union, China, Australia, and, according to foreign sources, Israel had failed to make significant progress, Iran would.

Levin himself has said that uranium enrichment via gas centrifuges is cheaper and better. Breakthroughs in recent years in the United States have made this method more efficient, but it is unclear whether Iran is capable of such technology.

In any case, Israeli officials have said in recent weeks that the pace of enrichment in the centrifuges that Iran is now building will let it skip from 3.5-percent enrichment to above the 90 percent needed for a nuclear bomb. The fear is that within weeks Iran will overcome the last obstacle to building a bomb without Western intelligence knowing ahead of time.