WASHINGTON — Intelligence officials from several countries say Iran in recent weeks has virtually completed an underground nuclear enrichment plant, racing ahead despite international pressure and heavy economic sanctions in what experts say may be an effort to give them leverage in any negotiations with the United States and its allies.
The installation of the last of nearly 3,000 centrifuges at a site called Fordo, deep under a mountain inside a military base near the holy city of Qom, puts Iran closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon, or come up to the edge, if its leaders ultimately decide to proceed.
The United States, Israel, and the United Nations have vowed to prevent that from happening, imposing increasingly tougher sanctions on the country and using cyberwarfare to slow its progress in obtaining a weapon. President Barack Obama said last week that the time for a negotiated settlement was “running out.”
Talks this year between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — have made little progress.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the United States and Iran had reached a tacit agreement to hold direct talks after the U.S. presidential election. Obama denied the report but said in Monday’s debate with Mitt Romney that he was open to such talks.
Iran’s progress at Fordo was disclosed by officials familiar with the findings of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who have been to the site recently as part of their regular visits. The officials included some from European governments who have opposed taking military action to slow the Iranian program, arguing that sanctions — with a mix of covert action — are far preferable.
The report comes at a moment when Iran has emerged as a flash point in the foreign policy debates surrounding the approaching election.
Romney has charged that the president has been “weak” on Iran and noted that Iran’s production of nuclear material had expanded greatly during Obama’s tenure. But he also embraced diplomacy in the Monday evening debate.
Asked about the intelligence reports, Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “While we can’t comment on a report that has yet to be released, we remain concerned about Iran’s defiance of its international obligations.”