by Suzanne Kelly
Iran's announcement that it has begun enriching uranium at an underground facility doesn't come as a surprise to nuclear security experts, but it does worry them that the program moves Tehran one step closer to developing a nuclear weapon.
"They announced last summer that they were going to do this," said David Albright, president of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "It's part of this gradual process that I think shows Iran is on their way to developing nuclear weapons."
Iran says some 3,000 centrifuges are in operation at Qom, with an additional 8,000 machines capable of enriching uranium at its Natanz facility.
Right now, Iran is enriching uranium at a lower rate than would be needed for a nuclear weapon.
Tehran has said that its uranium enrichment efforts are tied to efforts to provide medical assistance to cancer patients. But that argument is a hard sell in the West, where a report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency said that the Iranian government was developing technology that would be necessary for manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
The IAEA noted in a report last November that Iran had informed the agency more than two years earlier that the Fordo plant was under construction in the mountainous region of Qom province.
The plant is buried deep underground and deemed immune to an aerial attack, suggesting to some that Tehran is taking a strongarm approach in its refusal to bow to expanded sanctions, including sanctions aimed at Iran's central bank announced by the Obama administration just last month.
There has been no official response from the Israeli government, which was believed to be behind an aerial attack on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. Today, Israeli experts are calling for a diplomatic approach.
"This could be a cause of concern for Israel because the area of this site is so difficult to attack. If one day, Iran decides to cut its cooperation with the IAEA, it would make it easier to use such a site to make a bomb, but it's in the long term," said Meir Javedanfar, an analyst and lecturer on Iranian issues at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. "In the short term, I don't think Israel has too much to worry about because the site is still under inspection. In the long term, if things go wrong with Iran it could turn into a serious problem."
Western nuclear experts say it will take time for Iran to be able to produce weapon-grade uranium at Qom.
"I believe it will be one to three more years before they would have the capability" Albright said.
Some in the West hope they can be delayed.
Sanctions are one way the Obama administration has tried to squeeze Tehran, making it harder for Iranians to acquire the vital goods needed for their nuclear program. If sanctions don't work, experts point to efforts like cyberattacks and sabotage as other viable options intended to slow Tehran's nuclear development.
A computer virus known as Stuxnet effectively set back Iran's nuclear program in 2010 by launching a malware program that went undetected until damage to an Iranian nuclear facility had already been done.
Experts like Albright estimate that even if Iran were to continue to ratchet up the rhetoric and one day go so far as to kick out inspectors, it would still take six or seven months to manufacture weapons-grade uranium at its Natanz facility.
"The clock is ticking," Albright said. "So methods to bring Iran to the negotiating table to make concessions are all the more important now."
CNN's Kevin Flower contributed to this report