The problem of the Iranian nuclear program may become acute more quickly than analysts predicted.  The IAEA has warned its member states that Tehran has embarked on a modernization program of its uranium enrichment facilities that will speed up production of weapons-grade fissile material — by a factor of five:

The U.N. nuclear agency has told member nations that Iran is poised for a major technological upgrade of its uranium enrichment program, in a document seen Thursday by The Associated Press. The move would vastly speed up Tehran’s ability to make material that can be used for both reactor fuel and nuclear warheads.

In an internal note to member nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it received notice last week from Iran’s nuclear agency of plans to install high-technology enriching centrifuges at its main enriching site at Natanz, in central Iran. The machines are estimated to be able to enrich up to five times faster than the present equipment.

What does this mean for the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program?  One expert interviewed by the Associated Press called it a “game changer”:

Nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick described the planned upgrade as a potential “game-changer.”

“If thousands of the more efficient machines are introduced, the timeline for being able to produce a weapons worth of fissile material will significantly shorten,” said Fitzpatrick, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“This won’t change the several months it would take to make actual weapons out of the fissile material or the two years or more that it would take to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, so there is no need to start beating the war drums,” he said. “But it will certainly escalate concerns”.

This puts pressure on the Obama administration to take some kind of action to force Tehran to bargain for an end to the program, or suffer the consequences.  The selection of Iran-skeptic Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense hardly lends weight to a threat from the US, which as I’ve written in the past, is the real problem with Hagel’s nomination.  It’s pretty clear now that Obama won’t do anything significant to challenge the mullahs in Tehran, and that his national-security team will reorient itself away from leadership on the Iranian standoff.

On the other hand, there could be an opportunity in the modernization.  The West has penetrated Iran’s nuclear program through its technology before by cyberwarfare.  It’s unlikely that Iran can produce all of the systems for modernization on its own; in fact, as the AP notes at the end of the article, it’s their home-grown systems that need replacing because of the failure rate they produce. Perhaps this will give the West another opportunity to introduce more malware to crash the systems before they can produce weapons-grade fissile material.  That’s a mighty slim hope for the avoidance of a nuclear war in the Middle East, but with the current administration at the White House, it’s all we have.