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About a week ago, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) completed a routine visit to nuclear sites in Iran. They were surprised to discover that in the city of Natanz no real work has been accomplished in several months. In Natanz, approximately 400 kilometers from Tehran, Iran is building a large plant to enrich uranium, an important step on its way to mastering nuclear technology and producing nuclear weapons.

In all scenarios dealing with the possibility of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Natanz plant plays a central role. The site has two plants: One is the pilot and is supposed to operate some 3,000 uranium gas-powered centrifuges. The second, much larger installation, is intended in the future to absorb and operate up to 60,000 centrifuges. It will not be easy to strike at these installations, which were built deep underground and are protected from bombs by reinforced concrete up to 20 meters thick and anti-aircraft defense systems, including state-of-the-art Russian-made missiles.

Iran claims it plans to use the large installation to enrich uranium to a low level of up to five percent, which would be used to produce nuclear fuel. The gasoline to be produced there is intended to fuel and operate the reactor in Busher, where it will produce electricity. Iran's basic argument is that it wants to produce the nuclear fuel itself and not get it from Russia, the builder of the reactor, in order not to be dependent on external supply sources. Until the construction of the large installation is completed, Iran is conducting inspections and tests at the experimental facility to test the centrifuges' operation. These are sensitive and complex processes technologically speaking: The centrifuges must be fed uranium after it has undergone a chemical process of conversion from ore (yellow cake) to gas, a process that is completed at another facility (located in Isfahan). The gas is placed in a centrifuge and it is operated. The experiment is meant to ascertain, among other things, whether the centrifuge blades are functioning properly.

How can a chain of centrifuges be connected in a single system called a cascade (each cascade has 164 centrifuges)? How do several cascades connected to each other function simultaneously and continuously and for how long? What is the quality of the uranium they enrich? What malfunctions occur during the operating process? All of these are important questions that only trials conducted at nuclear installations can provide answers to. Only then will it be possible to know if and when Iran will succeed in mastering nuclear technology processes and turn into a nuclear power.

Proceeding slowly?

This complex process has been under review by experts from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran ever since it decided to enrich uranium a year and a half ago. Since then, Iran has manufactured an unknown number of centrifuges, moved them to Natanz and there started to assembled them into cascades.

During the last visit of IAEA inspectors to the facility, around two months ago, they saw two cascades in the manufacturing hall of the pilot plant in Natanz. The inspectors took samples to verify that the uranium is indeed being enriched as the Iranians claim to a low level and not a high one, from which it would be possible to produce fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. And then during the visit a week ago, they again saw the same two cascades. Here and there they noticed a few more singular centrifuges, which were undergoing tests, but the inspectors had the impression that work at the facility was proceeding very slowly.

This slow pace stands in contrast to the statements made in recent weeks by Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whereby an important development in the nuclear program is to be expected shortly. Last night the president reiterated the same statements. The Iranian speakers referred to February-March as the anticipated target date for the technological breakthrough.

Experts in Israel from the Atomic Energy Committee and from the intelligence community estimate that when Iran's leaders talk about a "breakthrough" they mean that Iran will on the designated date have around 3,000 centrifuges in the pilot plant in Natanz. The moment 2,000 or 3,000 centrifuges are set up in cascades and operate continuously with no malfunctions during a long period, Iran will reach what Israeli intelligence refers to as "the technological threshold." But according to the IAEA inspectors' impressions of Natanz, Iran is still far from reaching it. It has a total of two cascades, and not 10, the minimum required in experts' assessments to be considered as having crossed the technological threshold.

This is sparking wonder and further increasing the mystery shrouding Iran's nuclear program and its leaders' intentions. IAEA and intelligence officials offer different theories against this backdrop. One view is that Iran is having difficulty manufacturing, operating and controlling the enrichment process. A hint to that effect was already dropped by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, in his appearance last month before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, when he spoke of "technological problems" Iran is having in this area.

But there is of course another possibility, whereby Iran clandestinely built another uranium enrichment facility in a secret location, where it has already installed the necessary number of centrifuges and verified that they work properly. According to this theory, IAEA inspectors and Western intelligence officials are unaware of the existence of the facility and when the time is ripe, next month or in two months, Iran will announce its accomplishment and surprise the whole world, once again. This is not necessarily wild speculation. It has already happened in the past. In recent years, IAEA inspectors and the intelligence communities of Israel, the United States, Britain and Germany (which are leading the monitoring of Iran's nuclear program) failed to obtain information about the pace of progress in the Iranian program. The ones who were first to inform the IAEA that Iran was building a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz were the Iranian opposition organization, Mujahedin e-Khalq ("the people's warriors"), which reported on it in August 2002. However, it is possible that a Western intelligence agency did provide Mujahedin e-Khalq with the information, in order to launder information that it could not have relayed another way.

Concealed accomplishments

It seems that the Iranian leadership, headed by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has control over decisions regarding the nuclear program, decided to lower its profile in order not to increase its isolation around the world and harm its already tense relations with members of the United Nations Security Council. It is possible that Iran has already reached the technological threshold, but at this point, after the Security Council imposed sanctions on it (even if they are fairly mild), it decided not to disclose its accomplishments for fear that such an announcement would be perceived as further provocation and would lead to more severe sanctions.

Surprising reinforcement for this approach could be found in op-ed articles that appeared last week in two key Iranian newspapers, which were critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The criticism was leveled against him for his statements against the world in all matters connected to Iran's determination to achieve nuclear technology. The articles actually appeared in newspapers identified with conservative circles in the country. The newspaper, Jumhuri i-Islami, attacked Ahmadinejad in its editorial: "One day you announce that we are installing 3,000 centrifuges and the next day you speak of 60,000. The emerging impression is that you don't seriously think through what you are saying."

The second article is even more interesting and important, primarily because it was published in the newspaper, Hamshahri, the paper that Ahmadinejad himself ran when he was mayor of Tehran. "The moment when the nuclear issue could have disappeared from the UN Security Council's agenda, the president's roaring speeches appeared and the result was the passing of resolutions against Iran," the editorial stated.

If we add to these articles the defeat incurred by the president and his supporters in the recent local authority elections, one may conclude that there are growing signs in broad circles in Iran, including also the office of the supreme leader, of displeasure with Ahmadinejad and the extremist line he is championing. However, it is important to note that this alone is not enough to prove that Ahmadinejad's opponents are waiving Iran's right to achieve nuclear capability. In effect, if there is an issue that unites most Iranians, including those in exile, it is the desire to achieve nuclear technology. The animated debate underway in the papers and in the corridors of power is primarily over the means: How is it possible to obtain nuclear power without infuriating the world too much.