Iran has recently tested ways of recovering highly enriched uranium from waste reactor fuel in a covert bid to expand its nuclear program, according to an intelligence assessment provided by an unnamed member of the United Nation's 145-nation member nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Association.
The intelligence also says a report will soon be submitted to the Iranian leadership for a decision on whether to go ahead with the project.
The alleged tests loosely replicate Saddam Hussein's attempts to build the bomb nearly two decades ago. But experts question the conclusion by those providing the intelligence that Tehran, too, is trying to reprocess the fuel to make a nuclear weapon.
They note that the spent fuel at issue as the source of the enriched uranium is not enough to yield the approximately 30 kilograms of weapons-grade material needed for a bomb.
Still, they say that the alleged experiment appears plausible - if not as a fast track to weapons capability then as a step that could move it further along that path.
With Iran's nuclear program already under international scrutiny, any new efforts by Tehran to increase its nuclear expertise and its store of enriched uranium would set off alarm bells - particularly if that stock was highly enriched. The higher the enrichment the easier it is to reach the 90 percent level used in the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
The 3-page intelligence report, drawn from Iranian sources within the country, says the source material would be highly enriched - some at above 90 percent, the rest at 20 percent.
In contrast, Iran's enrichment program under constant IAEA monitoring has churned out material that is less than 5 percent enriched, in line with the fuel needs of modern reactors.
Procedures were evaluated for recycling fuel by dissolving fuel rods for irradiated waste and then reprocessing the material into uranium metal, says the intelligence assessment. Uranium metal is used for nuclear warheads.
Sufficient data was collected for planning production lines for recovering the fuel, says the assessment, which gave Tehran's Jaber ibn Hayan Laboratories, run by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as the location for the experiment.
Top officials of AEOI are in the final stages of writing a report for the Iranian leadership for assessment on whether to go forward with reprocessing, according to the intelligence.
The laboratories and the Tehran Nuclear Research Center, the site of the reactor, have figured in suspect experiments, including clandestine plutonium separation attempts uncovered by the IAEA.
If the information is accurate then Iran is trying to get their nose in the tent of reprocessing material potentially suitable for a warhead, said David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks suspect secret proliferators.
On the surface it may have nothing to do with making a bomb, but in the end that's what it could be about.
IAEA spokespeople were unavailable Thursday but an official of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog said the agency would not comment. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Both Albright and a senior Vienna-based diplomat agreed that the alleged experiment roughly jibed with Saddam's efforts to chemically process research reactor fuel to recover enriched uranium - in the case of Baghdad, enough and at a sufficiently high level of enrichment to make a bomb.
Close to success, the Iraqis saw their plans fail with the destruction of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center during the first Gulf War of 1990-1991.
This is the 'Iraqi scenario,' said the diplomat, referring to the alleged Iranian experiment. He - like the source of the intelligence - demanded anonymity because their information was restricted.
But both he and Albright noted that the purported source for the fuel - Tehran's TNRC research reactor - was unlikely to have enough material for reprocessing into the core of a warhead.
The five-megawatt reactor initially ran on weapons-grade uranium fuel enriched to 93 percent that was provided by the U.S. in the late 1960s to the then pro-Washington regime. But measured in terms of potential proliferation, the amount was small - only 7 kilograms (15 pounds).
Then, in the late 1980s, Argentina helped reconfigure the reactor core and provided about 115 kilograms (250 pounds)of uranium. In contrast to modern reactors that run on low-enriched fuel, that material was highly enriched to about 20 percent.
Albright said that even optimal reprocessing would probably yield less than about half of the 30 kilograms (65 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium needed for a bomb. That restriction makes it unlikely that Iran was looking to the TNRC reactor for that immediate purpose.
Instead, an Iranian reprocessing plans could be part of Tehran's attempts to push the nuclear envelope.
U.S.-led efforts for tough UN sanctions for Iran's refusal to suspend enrichment have been consistently blocked by Russia and China. Tehran also has support of developing countries traditionally suspicious of Washington.
Defying weak sanctions, the Islamic Republic has moved further through enrichment toward developing weapons capability - now anywhere from six months to several years away, depending on the source.
Iran may be banking on further international inaction if it announces it will reprocess, perhaps arguing that it will need it as a source for new fuel for the research reactor. If allowed to do so, it will have moved another step ahead on the path to being able to develop warhead material.
"It's the idea that Iran wants to slowly develop nuclear weapons capability under the tent and it does it slowly so that people will accept it," said Albright. "It's [a matter of] keeping your head down, moving slowly and deliberately and winning at each step.
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