Speaking in a telephone interview, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei emphasised that remarks issued by the United States and Israel earlier this week that neither of those nation was ruling out military action should enhanced sanctions against Iran for its incipient nuclear programme failed to work would be “catastrophic.”
"Even the idea of people talking about using force … it would be catastrophic, it would be an act of madness, and it would not solve the issue," he said.
ElBaradei said Iran could be running close to 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges by the end of next month—a number that IAEA officials have described as the point of no return in the start of a large-scale programme.
"They have 1,700 to 2,000 centrifuges right now," he said, adding that Iran was on target to have about 3,000 running by the end of July. That would be enough to yield material for one bomb in a year if operated nonstop.
ElBaradei urges Tehran toward self-restraint
ElBaradei urged Iran to offer a "self-imposed moratorium" on enrichment, describing it as a "good confidence-building measure" that could launch negotiations on the standoff.
ElBaradei was speaking after the end of a meeting of his agency’s 35-nation board, which gathered to focus on Iran’s refusal to heed UN Security Council demands that it freeze enrichment activities that could be used to make nuclear arms and provide answers on suspicious aspects of its programme.
Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief envoy to the IAEA however, reasserted the position laid out in more flamboyant terms on Tuesday by his country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -that Iran would never stop enriching uranium. Soltanieh again said that Iran was pursuing nuclear power for energy purposes, Reuters reported.
ElBaradei says Iran three to five years from a bomb
ElBaradei underscored in his interview that the next months of negotiation with Tehran would be critical, but also said that Iran was not yet within reach of building a working nuclear weapon.
"The next few months will be crucial," he said: "Iran is building a capacity, a knowledge" of enrichment that is irreversible, while not providing evidence sought by his agency "that this is a peaceful programme."
"Even if Iran wants to have a weapon they are three to eight years away," ElBaradei said, citing unidentified intelligence sources for his estimate. But "the longer we delay, the less option we have to reach a peaceful solution."
A recent IAEA report confirmed that Iran was expanding its activities and continuing to stonewall the IAEA in its attempts to gain more information on past activities of concern. That has set the stage for a new round of Security Council-imposed penalties.
Indeed, Iran’s defiance of UN Security Council demands it stop enrichment and construction of a plutonium-producing reactor as well as increase cooperation with IAEA inspectors has led to two sets of sanctions from the council.
Current path leads to confrontation
"It would be a good confidence-building measure if Iran would right now have a self- imposed moratorium, on the level of the number of centrifuges being built," he said.
ElBaradei said the current stalemate could prove disastrous.
"If we go the way we are heading, I can see that we will be heading towards confrontation," ElBaradei said.
Iranian chest beating justified or just spin?
Iran itself has a very high estimation of its ability to enrich uranium at an industrial scale. Soltanieh declared that Tehran had become the “master of uranium enrichment” during Thursday’s IAEA board meeting.
When contacted later by Bellona Web, Soltanieh evaded a question on whether his country had solved all technical problems in the intensely complicated enrichment process of spinning uranium gas through centrifuges at high speed.
U.S. officials have said their information indicates Iran has not yet achieved the technical perfection. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential matters.
Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. envoy to the IAEA, scoffed at Soltanieh’s claim of enrichment mastery, telling Associated Press Television News: "The Iranian ambassador spins faster than any centrifuge."
In his interview, though, Elbaradei cautioned against such dismissals, saying Iran "was steadily moving toward perfecting the technology."
"Whether some of the centrifuges are running with the speed desired, whether some of the centrifuges have been crashed, that is a part we have yet not seen and we still have to do some analysis," ElBaradei said.
"But it is clear … that they are meeting their expectations at least in terms of the level of enrichment," he said, alluding to his agency’s recent confirmation that centrifuges at Tehran’s underground Natanz facility have churned out small amounts of fuel-grade enriched uranium.
ElBaradei last month angered the United States and European allies by saying Iran had mastered a basic enrichment program and they should consider negotiating to cap it short of industrial level that could lead to atomic bombs, Reuters reported.
The permanent UN Security Council powers have stuck to the demand for a total enrichment halt in exchange for a suspension to sanctions and negotiations to implement trade benefits on offer to Iran.
IAEA officials have informally identified an Iranian enrichment operation running 3,000 centrifuges as the start of a large-scale program, while experts say that number could produce enough material for several warheads a year. Tehran says it wants to operate 54,000 centrifuges—enough for a full-scale weapons programme should it chose to go that route, AP reported.