Iran's nuclear program, which stumbled badly after a reported cyberattack last year, appears beset by poorly performing equipment, shortages of parts and other woes as global sanctions exert a mounting toll, Western diplomats and nuclear experts say.
The new setbacks are surfacing at a time when Iran faces growing international pressure, including allegations that Iranian officials backed a clumsy attempt to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington. Analysts say Iran has become increasingly frustrated and erratic as political change sweeps the region and its nuclear program struggles.
Although Iran continues to stockpile enriched uranium in defiance of UN resolutions, two new reports portray the country's nuclear program as riddled with problems as scientists struggle to keep older equipment working.
At Iran's largest nuclear complex, near the city of Natanz, fast-spinning machines called centrifuges churn out enriched uranium. But the average output is steadily declining as the equipment breaks down, according to an analysis of data collected by UN nuclear officials.
Iran has vowed to replace the older machines with models that are faster and more efficient. Yet new centrifuges recently introduced at Natanz contain parts made from an inferior type of metal that is weaker and more prone to failure, according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit group widely regarded for its analysis of nuclear programs.
"Without question, they have been set back," said David Albright, president of the institute and a former inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Although the problems are not fatal for Iran's nuclear ambitions, they have "hurt Iran's ability to break out quickly" into the ranks of the world's nuclear powers, Albright said.
The studies of Iran's struggling uranium program draw on data collected by UN officials who conduct regular inspections of Iran's facilities to ensure that the nation is not diverting the enriched product into a military weapons program.
The inspectors' report documented a sharp drop in output in 2009 and 2010, providing the first confirmation of a major equipment failure linked to a computer virus dubbed Stuxnet.
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