The Iranians announced their intention to process the material last week in a submission to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency ... Sunday Telegraph
By Con Coughlin
Iran's decision to begin processing 37 tons of uranium yellowcake this month will enable it to acquire enough weapons grade uranium to build up to five nuclear bombs, Western intelligence officials are warning.
The Iranians announced their intention to process the material last week in a submission to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose 35-member Board of Governors will meet tomorrow to discuss whether the Iranians are being truthful about their nuclear programme.
Although the Iranians insist that their uranium-processing programme is intended solely to provide fuel for the country's new nuclear power plants, Western scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about glaring discrepancies in Teheran's official submission on its nuclear programme to the IAEA, the international nuclear watchdog.
Suspicions about the true extent of Iran's nuclear programme have intensified since The Sunday Telegraph revealed last year that traces of enriched uranium had been found at a secret processing plant at Natanz in central Iran. The Iranians claimed that a consignment of research equipment delivered from Pakistan had been contaminated before it was brought into the country.
Since then IAEA inspectors, with the full support of European and American leaders, have been pressing Iran to provide a comprehensive account of its nuclear activities.
In an attempt to counter the mounting hostility of the Bush administration in Washington, which branded Teheran part of an "axis of evil", the Iranians last October reached an agreement with Britain, France and Germany to suspend all uranium enrichment activity.
Following the gains made by the fundamentalists in the Iranian parliamentary elections earlier this year, in June Teheran reneged on the agreement, claiming it was fully entitled to conduct uranium enrichment under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so long as it was undertaken for peaceful purposes.
Iran's insistence, however, that its nuclear programme is aimed solely at developing the country's power industry is now being called into question by Western intelligence officials and nuclear experts. They argue that recent discoveries by IAEA inspectors indicate that Iran is maintaining a clandestine nuclear weapons programme.
The first serious discrepancy in Iran's official declaration on its nuclear programme was uncovered earlier this year when IAEA inspectors - many of whom helped to uncover Saddam Hussein's secret nuclear weapons programme in the early 1990s - discovered that Iran had failed to declare that it had imported the design for an advanced centrifuge, which could be used to produce weapons grade uranium.
IAEA inspectors were also alarmed to find an ultra-sensitive radiation detection device at the site of Iran's Physics Research Centre in Teheran, where the government said it had been researching the impact of a nuclear attack on Iran.
When inspectors made a pre-arranged visit to the centre, they found that the Iranians had razed the complex to the ground, and removed topsoil from the surrounding area to a depth of two feet.
Western intelligence officials believe the radiation detection devices found at the site may have been used to identify and clean up traces of enriched uranium, to prevent a repeat of the embarrassing discovery made by IAEA inspectors at Natanz.
"The Iranians' actions are highly suspicious, to say the least," commented a senior Western intelligence official. "They are deliberately spinning out their negotiations with the IAEA so that they can get on with their clandestine project to build a nuclear bomb."
In an attempt to head off any criticism from the IAEA at tomorrow's meeting, Iranian nuclear officials have offered to stop work on construction of new centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. But nuclear scientists estimate that Iran may already possess sufficient centrifuges to process uranium yellowcake to weapons grade.
Unlike many of its nuclear rivals in the Middle East, Iran is self-sufficient in raw uranium, and Teheran recently announced that it was to resume mining 40 tons of uranium ore each year.
The first stage in the uranium enrichment process being undertaken by the Iranians is to convert the yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride. Once that has been achieved the uranium hexafluoride is spun repeatedly through a succession of centrifuges, the end result being weapons grade uranium.
Nuclear experts estimate that the 37 tons of raw uranium now being processed by the Iranians would yield 100 kilos (220lb) of enriched uranium, sufficient to build four or five crude nuclear devices.
Although European diplomats believe that Iran can still be persuaded to suspend its nuclear programme, there is mounting frustration in Washington that the Iranians are not taking the inspections process seriously.
John Bolton, US undersecretary for arms control and international security, wants the issue of Iran's non-compliance with the IAEA referred to the UN Security Council, arguing that nothing else will force other countries to take the threat posed by Iran's nuclear programme seriously.
A Western intelligence official said: "The very fact that Iran now possesses the ability to enrich uranium means that ultimately it has the ability to make a nuclear bomb.
"The Iranians have been playing games with us for years, and unless drastic action is taken to force them to observe their international obligations they will soon be in a position to threaten the entire Middle East region with their nuclear arsenal."