Iran has reportedly begun to deploy a new generation of machinery to produce nuclear fuel, a development bound to intensify a debate in Washington about whether a recent National Intelligence Estimate accurately portrayed Tehran's progress toward the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
The testing of the new machinery, centrifuges known as IR-2s, was disclosed by European diplomats and American officials and was reported over the past two days in Europe. The development is expected to be included in a report this month by the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran's nuclear progress, and whether it has finally resolved questions about activities that have led inspectors to suspect that it may be pursuing weapons.
Centrifuges spin at enormously high speeds to enrich uranium, which can be used to fuel nuclear reactors or, after more processing, nuclear weapons. The IR-2 is an Iranian improvement on a Pakistani design that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted in an April 2006 speech would quadruple Iran's enrichment powers.
Reports about the new centrifuges were made just two days after the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, told Congress that he had regrets about how the National Intelligence Estimate had been written. He was responding to criticism that the report had left the impression that Iran was no longer seeking a nuclear weapons capability.
The National Intelligence Estimate said that late in 2003 Iran ceased work on a weapons design -- but it noted later that Iran was continuing to enrich uranium. Nuclear experts say that building an atomic warhead is less of an engineering challenge than producing the fuel for the weapon.