Iran Seen Trying New Path to a Bomb

Iran could begin producing weapons-grade plutonium by next summer, U.S. and European officials believe, using a different nuclear technology that would be easier for foreign countries to attack.

The second path to potentially producing a nuclear weapon could complicate international efforts to negotiate with Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, who was sworn in Sunday in Tehran. It also heightens the possibility of an Israeli strike, said U.S. and European officials.

Until now, U.S. and Western governments had been focused primarily on Iran's vast program to enrich uranium, one path to creating the fissile materials needed for nuclear weapons. Now, the West is increasingly concerned Iran also could use the development of a heavy water nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for a bomb. A heavy-water reactor is an easier target to hit than the underground facilities that house Iran's uranium-enrichment facilities.

Some Iranians and foreign diplomats hope that Mr. Rouhani, a former top nuclear negotiator, will try to negotiate an end to the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. After being sworn in, Mr. Rouhani called on the West to drop the sanctions. "If you seek a suitable answer, speak to Iran through the language of respect, not through the language of sanctions," he said.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Rouhani's inauguration represented "an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community's deep concerns over Iran's nuclear program." "Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States," Mr. Carney said.

In recent months, U.S. and European officials say, the Tehran regime has made significant advances on the construction of a heavy water reactor in the northwestern city of Arak. A reactor like the one under construction is capable of using the uranium fuel to produce 40 megawatts of power. Spent fuel from it contains plutonium—which, like enriched uranium, can serve as the raw material for an explosive device. India and Pakistan have built plutonium-based bombs, as has North Korea.

The Arak facility, when completed, will be capable of producing two nuclear bombs' worth of plutonium a year, said U.S. and U.N. officials.

Iran has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, that it plans to make the reactor operational by the second half of 2014 and could begin testing it later this year.

The IAEA has been monitoring Arak since its construction began. But following Iran's latest timeline, the site's importance has vastly shot up for Washington and Brussels, said U.S. and European officials. "It really crept up on us," said an official based at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters.

Iran denies it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. It has told the IAEA it is building Arak to produce isotopes used in medical treatments, said U.N. officials.

The development is of deep concern to Israel, which fears it could become the target of any Iranian nuclear attack. It presents a new challenge to the Obama administration's efforts to engage with Mr. Rouhani, a Scottish-educated cleric who has pledged to negotiate with the U.S. and other world powers over Tehran's nuclear program.

U.S. and European officials said in recent interviews that they are hoping to start negotiations with Mr. Rouhani's new government in September.

"At this stage, our most pressing concern is dealing with the enrichment of uranium. But we are increasingly concerned about activity…at Arak," said a senior European official involved in the Iran diplomacy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if international diplomacy stalls. He publicly warned Iran in July not to move forward with the commissioning of the Arak reactor, or risk facing military action.

"They're pursuing an alternate route of plutonium…to build a nuclear bomb," the Israeli leader said on CBS's "Face the Nation" on July 14. "They haven't yet reached it, but they're getting closer to it. And they have to be stopped."

Israel has twice destroyed reactors in neighboring Middle East countries before they could produce plutonium, believing they were part of covert nuclear-weapons programs. The Arak plant is viewed as a much easier facility for the Israeli military to strike than Iran's enrichment facilities in the cities of Natanz and Qom.

"There's no question that the reactor and its heavy water are more vulnerable targets than the enrichment plants," said Gary Samore, who served as President Barack Obama's top adviser on nuclear issues during his first term. "This could be another factor in Netanyahu's calculations in deciding how long to wait before launching military operations."

Any Israeli strike on the reactor complex, said current and former U.S. officials, would likely have to take place before Tehran introduces nuclear materials into the facility, because of the potential for a vast environmental disaster a strike could cause.

Iran started building the Arak facility in 2004 based on designs provided by Russia, according to former U.N. officials. Two years later, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution requiring Tehran to cease construction because of the IAEA's concerns Iran might have a covert nuclear-weapons program.

Tehran has refused to comply, one of the reasons the U.N. has enacted four rounds of sanctions on Iran. It has also significantly restricted the IAEA's ability to inspect the reactor and its development plans, according to U.N. officials.

In June, Tehran announced it installed the reactor's vessel, which houses the facility's nuclear fuel load. Tehran also has been mass producing "pellets," comprised of natural uranium, to make up the fuel rods to run the plant. In March, Iran told the IAEA it would produce 55 bundles of fuel rods to power Arak by August.

Iran's plans to start running Arak by next summer might be ambitious, said current and former IAEA officials.

Iran has missed a number of self-announced deadlines in the past to finish building parts of its uranium-enrichment program. The IAEA also says that it has no indications yet that Tehran has built a reprocessing facility at Arak, which would be needed to harvest the plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel.

Still, nuclear experts who have studied Arak said it was likely Iran could start running Arak by the end of next year. "There is a good possibility that [the reactor] can reach its first nuclear criticality by the end of 2014," said Olli Heinonen, a former head of the IAEA's inspections unit, who is now at Harvard's Belfer Center, which focuses on the studies of nuclear-arms reduction. "However…no significant quantity of plutonium should be available for actual extraction before 2016."

U.S. and European officials are closely monitoring the formation of Mr. Rouhani's new government to gauge what policies the president might pursue in future nuclear negotiations.

On Sunday, Mr. Rouhani nominated U.S.-educated diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Mr. Zarif, Iran's former U.N. ambassador, has been a strong proponent of engagement with the U.S. He closely cooperated with the George W. Bush administration after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to put in place the government in Kabul now headed by President Hamid Karzai. U.S. and European officials, who said Mr. Zarif's nomination is a promising sign, are closely watching who Mr. Rouhani will name as his chief nuclear negotiator.

Source: The Wall Street Journal