Washington, Jan. 22: Iran has secretly extended the uranium enrichment plant at the centre of the international controversy over its resumption of banned nuclear research earlier this month, satellite imagery has revealed.
Seven buildings have been erected around the concealed centrifuges which Western governments fear will be used to manufacture weapons-grade uranium at the Natanz site, 200 miles south of Teheran.
The discovery has heightened fears that Iran is stepping up the pace of its suspected weapons programme, in breach of international agreements, since it removed International Atomic Energy Authority seals on nuclear equipment at the site 10 days ago.
Western intelligence agencies are focusing on alarming similarities in satellite imagery of Iran’s nuclear sites, which the regime claims are for civilian purposes, and atomic facilities in Pakistan used to make the raw materials for nuclear weapons, as they try to identify the purpose of the Natanz construction spree.
The building work took place unannounced during a 16-month pause in research and development at the site, while Iran engaged the West in protracted talks over its professed desire to develop nuclear power.
The existence of the Natanz site was kept secret until it was exposed by an Iranian opposition group in 2002. Iran started to move funds out of the European banks on Friday to avoid possible financial sanctions after its scientists resumed work. The showdown has contributed to soaring world oil prices and a slump on Wall Street stock markets.
The Sunday Telegraph has seen recent US intelligence analysis of satellite photographs of nuclear sites in Iran and Pakistan that strengthens fears that the Islamic regime is secretly developing atomic weapons under the guise of a supposedly peaceful power programme. “Iran’s facilities are scaled exactly like another state’s facilities that were designed to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons,” the US report concluded, using the phrase “another state” to refer to Pakistan for diplomatic reasons.
The intelligence briefing also studies Iran’s heavy water plant and reactor at Araq and its ballistic missile programme and compares them with Pakistan’s facilities. The world learnt that Islamabad had built nuclear weapons only when it conducted first tests in 1998.
John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent Washington defence research consultancy that specialises in analysing satellite images, told this newspaper: “These pictures indicate that Iran is replicating every major step that Pakistan took in its atomic bomb programme.”
Both US intelligence and Pike’s independent analysis highlight the Araq site, where Iran claims it is processing heavy water for a medical isotope programme. It bears a striking resemblance to Pakistan’s site at Khushab.
Heavy water production reactors can be designed to covert uranium into weapons-grade plutonium without the need for further enrichment. Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, Russia and the US are all believed to have used them for this purpose.
The US intelligence assessment concludes that Iran could produce enough plutonium each year at Araq for up to three nuclear bombs.