Iran Centrifuge Test Was Error, Not Cheating, U.S. Officials Say

Centrifuges
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facilities in a April 8, 2008 file photo. Source: Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images

When nuclear monitors said Iran had started testing a single advanced centrifuge last year, some U.S. politicians and analysts jumped on the report as proof the Islamic Republic can’t be trusted.

To U.S. officials negotiating with Iran, it was probably just a mistake -- one that shows the pitfalls in the highly technical accord being discussed. Describing the incident in detail for the first time, U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified following diplomatic rules, said the testing was probably done by a low-level employee on Iran’s nuclear program who didn’t understand the limits placed on his experimentation.

Diplomats and scientists on Wednesday held a fourth day of talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, as world powers seek an accord to limit Iran’s nuclear work. They’ve given themselves until the end of this month to announce a framework agreement, and until the end of June to work out full technical details.

While Iran has more than 19,000 installed centrifuges -- machines that spin at supersonic speeds that can be used to enrich uranium for reactor fuel or bombs -- only one prompted suspicion when International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors reported their quarterly findings in November.

“Iran has been intermittently feeding natural UF6 into the IR-5 centrifuge” said the Nov. 7 document, referring to the the uranium hexaflouride gas being piped into the fifth-generation Iranian centrifuge to test if it worked.

Testing Boundaries

Two weeks later, at a congressional hearing in Washington, politicians and trade analysts used that IAEA report to argue Iran was violating the terms of an interim accord curtailing sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

“How has the administration responded to this evidence of Iranian cheating?” asked South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson.

“This is an example of what Iran does when I say they cheat incrementally and not egregiously and that they are testing the boundaries of our willingness to respond,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research center that has helped draft sanctions on Iran. “There were no sanctions, there was no economic cost and the message to Iran is: when there is a comprehensive agreement, you can cheat incrementally.”

Removing Doubts

According to the U.S. officials, though, Iran hadn’t technically violated the interim accord, which allowed some research and development activities to continue. What’s more, the person responsible was probably a low- or mid-level employee at the lab who wasn’t acting on orders from above, they said. The U.S. nevertheless asked Iran to stop the testing in order to remove any doubts.

The episode highlights the difficulties of trying to regulate the vast industrial infrastructure and laboratories involved in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear work.

That’s one reason the talks are getting more technical as the deadline nears. Diplomats said some of the gaps between the sides narrowed on Tuesday after U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, joined the discussions, with backup from squadrons of scientists and engineers.

The final agreement will need to trace the lifetime journey of uranium as it’s dug out of the ground, converted to gas, enriched into metal and fed into nuclear power reactors.

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