Iran Causes Tension with Nuclear Moves

European foreign ministers hold emergency talks in Berlin Thursday about concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions. This week, Iran removed seals placed by U.N. inspectors at a uranium enrichment research center. The United Nations wanted Iran to freeze its nuclear program. Renee Montagne talks to David Albright, a former inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

European foreign ministers said today that Iran should be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions over its nuclear program. Ministers from Britain, France and Germany said negotiations with Iran had reached a, quote, "dead end."

Two days ago, Iran broke the seals placed by UN inspectors at a uranium enrichment research center there. The UN wanted Iran to freeze its nuclear program; it says it wants to resume research so it can develop uranium fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. To find out how close Iran may be to becoming a nuclear power we spoke to David Albright. He's a former inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.

Welcome.

Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (Former Inspector, IAEA): Good to be here.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with those seals that Iran is removing. What exactly does that mean? How serious is that, removing seals?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, Iran is crossing a red line that was established by the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors, its ruling body, and also in a series of agreements between Iran and three major European powers. And so it's not just research; it's a very serious act where Iran is essentially walking away from agreements that it had made or understood and starting the process of developing the ability to put together a uranium enrichment plant, which they claim will be for civil purposes, but there's a lot of suspicion that the plant will actually be used to also produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

MONTAGNE: Break it down for us. What is the technology that the Iranians are gaining, or would be gaining?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, without a suspension, Iran can move forward in two major areas. One is just making centrifuges, and it hasn't done that for a long time. The other is learning to actually operate centrifuges in what's called a cascade. I mean, a centrifuge by itself doesn't do much enriching. So you need to put them together with pipes and then learn how to operate that cascade. And Iran has a 164-machine centrifuge cascade that it finished right about the time the freeze or suspension first started in the fall of 2003. And so it's focusing now on getting that cascade finished, which is largely just connecting some of the final pipe work, and then preparing the cascade for operation, which could take a couple months, and then putting uranium hexafluoride into the cascade and then trying to enrich uranium for some period of time. And it's a very important technical hurdle for Iran to overcome, but nonetheless, no one feels that they won't overcome this hurdle.

MONTAGNE: How long or how soon could that happen?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: It could happen as soon as six months. And once they overcome this hurdle, then they can start duplicating the cascade with confidence, they can increase the number of centrifuges in a cascade and they basically could then start building the centrifuge plant. And so the hope had been, with the suspension, is to keep some buffer between Iran being able to actually build a centrifuge plant. And if they operate this cascade successfully, then there's no more technical barriers for them to build and operate a centrifuge plant.

MONTAGNE: If, indeed, the world community has decided that this can only be about getting a nuclear weapon, is this the time to refer Iran to the UN Security Council?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Unfortunately, it is time. If the issue isn't referred to the Security Council, it makes the United States and Europe look weak. And also, the IAEA will look weak, because the normal procedure for the IAEA is to send the issue to the Security Council when a country's made a major violation. There also will be efforts outside the Security Council to increase sanctions on Iran, to restrict trade with Iran.

MONTAGNE: Which Iran has already said, `We could survive sanctions.'

Mr. ALBRIGHT: We'll see. The view is they can survive, but will their public tolerate that? Iran has a very weak economy. They need jobs for their people. If that starts to be threatened by sanctions, Iran may change its mind.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: All right. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: David Albright is a former UN inspector. He's president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

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