The AP is reporting that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently found traces of "highly enriched" (read: weapons grade) uranium at a site linked to Iran's defense establishment.
Speaking on conditions of anonymity, source at the agency indicated that the finding is preliminary, and more tests are needed to confirm that the uranium is highly enriched. But the report is disturbing, and suggests that Iran may be much further along in its nuclear enrichment efforts than previous thought. Sources told the AP that the traces discovered in Iran "approach" the density of enrichment required for nuclear warheads--90% or higher. Tehran has claimed that it is enriching uranium for nuclear power reactors, which only require a 3-5% density of enrichment.
More troubling, the IAEA sources suggest that the highly enriched sample may have come from equipment removed from Iran's Lavizan-Shian Research Center. Tehran leveled that complex in late 2004, apparently to hide nuclear weapons research that was reportedly taking place there. To cover its tracks from the IAEA (and western intelligence agencies), Iranian crews tore down several buildings at Lavizan and even removed topsoil from the site.
In fairness, there may be other explanations for the highly enriched traces of uranium found recently in Iran. During a previous episode, inspectors discovered that the weapons-grade traces were left on equipment purchased from Pakistan, through the A.Q. Kahn proliferation network. Tehran may make similar claims this time around.
Lavizan-Shian has been previously described as a "repository" of nuclear-related equipment. But the massive "deconstruction" job at that site in 2004 suggests that other activity may have been occurring as well. The facility was reportedly affiliated with an Iranian university that has long been active in Tehran's nuclear program.
A worst-case scenario (based on the IAEA discovery) would suggest that Iran's nuclear enrichment efforts were well advanced in 2004, and that Iran has shifted its enrichment work to other sites. U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials have long suspected that Iran has covert nuclear facilities; the existence of such sites would have allowed Iran to raze Lavizan, while continuing to enrich weapons-grade uranium at secret complexes. A recent Israeli assessment--delivered by the Mossad chief in Washington two weeks ago--reiterates that claim. A more advanced enrichment program, producing uranium of weapons-grade quality, would allow Iran to field nuclear weapons sooner than expected.
Despite this disturbing report, the U.S. remains committed to the diplomatic track. President Bush said recently that we are in the "early stages" of diplomacy. That statement would be ironic, especially if we learn that Iran is already in the latter stages of uranium enrichment, in its rush to build a nuclear weapon.