WASHINGTON -- The director general of the U.N. nuclear inspection agency warned Tehran and Washington for the first time yesterday that their yearlong stalemate over Iran's nuclear activities was turning into a "brewing confrontation" that he said "urgently needs to be defused."
In his statement to the member countries of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei stopped just short of saying that the confrontation could become a military conflict, though his aides said that was clearly the implication. In private meetings with European and U.S. officials, ElBaradei also warned that unless diplomatic means were found to stop Iran's installation of new centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, the country could have 8,000 of the machines in place by the end of the year.
If all those machines were working - which would be a tremendous challenge for Iran, given the highly sensitive nature of the equipment and the technical obstacles that have impeded Iranian engineers for years - they could produce enough uranium for roughly three nuclear weapons a year, nuclear experts say. But that assumes Iran could operate the equipment as well as Pakistan did in the late 1980s. One of the founders of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, supplied Iran with the prototypes that enabled Iran to build its equipment.
U.S. experts warn that it is far from clear that Iran could get a large number of centrifuges to spin simultaneously for long periods, which is what it would take to produce bomb-grade uranium. So far, inspectors have said that all the uranium they have tested from the country's centrifuges has been enriched to reactor grade, which is not sufficient to make a weapon.
Still, ElBaradei's comments appeared likely to add to his tensions with the Bush administration, which attempted to block his nomination for a second term at the agency just months before he won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.
Last month, the United States and several of its European allies issued a formal demarche to ElBaradei after he told The New York Times that the U.S. strategy of negotiating with the Iranians only after they suspended uranium manufacturing had failed, and that the Iranians now "pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich."
U.S. officials disputed that analysis, perhaps with an eye to buying more time in negotiations. Yesterday, ElBaradei modified his statement slightly, saying that "Iran continues steadily to perfect its knowledge relevant to enrichment" and to expand its manufacturing capability.
David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear arms, said he was concerned that ElBaradei might be overstating Iran's progress in an effort to propel the United States into unconditional negotiations with Tehran.
"The Iranians would have to demonstrate that they can really makes these centrifuges work," he said. "So far they have been cautious - they have run them very slowly, because they don't want to see hundreds and hundreds of them crash." He said he thought the estimate that Iran could have 8,000 centrifuges by the end of the year was "aggressive."
A year ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that she would join negotiations with the Europeans and Iran if Tehran first agreed to suspend all enrichment activities for the duration of the negotiations. To the administration's surprise, the Iranians never agreed to the deal, which the United States says is still on the table.
ElBaradei's warning about a "brewing confrontation" appeared to be another dip into political strategy for a man who U.S. officials insist should simply be reporting on Iran's progress. He has been clear that he views his job more broadly and that it is his responsibility to caution hard-liners in both the Bush administration and the Iranian government that they have to find a path to compromise. Last month, he talked about "new crazies" who were pushing for military action against Iran; he did not name names or countries, but his implication was clear.
Yesterday, he focused most of his criticism on the Iranians, who he said continue "to put additional restrictions and limitations on the agency's verification activities." A meeting between top IAEA inspectors and a senior Iranian official, scheduled for yesterday in Vienna, Austria, was canceled when it became clear that the official had come with no new answers to questions that the IAEA has posed, including about design documents that have led to charges that Iran may be considering ways to design nuclear weapons.