U.N. nuclear inspectors to look at Iran's uranium enrichment program

Sunday, March 26, 2006

VIENNA, Austria -- U.N. inspectors should know by next week how far Iran has advanced on the path to nuclear enrichment, diplomats said Saturday -- findings that could shape Security Council action against Tehran and hurt U.S. claims that Iran has accelerated its efforts.

The International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N. nuclear watchdog -- is clearly rankled by the U.S. assertions just days ahead of a trip by IAEA inspectors to Natanz, the site of Iran's known enrichment efforts.

IAEA officials normally refuse to be identified as such when discussing sensitive topics such as disputes with leading IAEA board members, such as the United States.

But reflecting exasperation, a senior agency official dropped such reservations Saturday as he called the U.S. claims that an agency briefing on the advances made by Iran on enrichment was a bombshell "pure speculation and misinformation."

"It comes from people who are seeking a crisis, not a solution" to the confrontation over Iran, the official said.

The senior IAEA official did not offer details on the spat.

But a diplomat in Vienna, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information, said some U.S. administration officials were misrepresenting a recent briefing by the agency to Vienna-based representatives of America, Russia, China, France, and Britain -- the five permanent Security Council members.

The information on where Iran was on enrichment and where it was headed was not new, but the U.S. officials claimed that the ... IAEA was "blown away" by Iran's progress and had the U.S. redefining its timeline for Iran's capacity to make its first nuclear weapon down to three years, the diplomat said.

Just last year, U.S. officials cited intelligence estimating Iran would need 10 years for its first bomb.

IAEA experts planned a trip to Natanz "in the next few days" and will report to the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog by early next week, said an official close to the agency.

Their findings on how close Iran is to putting 164 centrifuges to work at uranium enrichment at its pilot plant at Natanz will come at a crucial time.

The U.N. Security Council is deadlocked on how to react to Tehran's defiance of international pressure on its nuclear program, and the report by IAEA inspectors could help -- or hurt -- U.S.-led efforts to ratchet up the pressure on Iran in the form of a harshly worded council statement.

Tehran is far from its ultimate goal of running 50,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at Natanz for what it says will be the fuel requirements of its nearly finished Russian-built Bushehr reactor. It has less than 1,000 centrifuges.

But former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright recently told the AP that Iran has enough black-market components in storage to build the 1,500 operating centrifuges it would need to make the 20 kilograms -- or 45 pounds -- of highly enriched uranium needed for one crude weapon.

Still, Iran has been open about its enrichment plans in recent months, telling the IAEA earlier this year it plans to start installing the first of what will be a 3,000-centrifuge plant at Natanz later this year.

The U.S. mission in Vienna declined to comment on how the Americans viewed last week's briefing. But Western diplomats from permanent Security Council nations said it revealed little new.

One of those briefed described Tehran's progress toward enrichment -- including plans to activate the 164-pilot plant at Natanz -- as similar to a paper presented by the Iranians a year ago at talks with key European nations.

Those talks collapsed after Iran ended its freeze on enrichment-related activities -- a move that led the 35-nation board to refer Tehran to the U.N. Security Council.

The council has been at loggerheads since taking up the issue earlier this month.

Britain and France support tough language calling on Tehran to return to a freeze of enrichment but Russia and China, the two other permanent council members, are opposed.

In a telephone conversation Friday with his Iranian counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow's view was that the nuclear dispute should be resolved "through political diplomatic means within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency," his office said in a statement.

The statement indicates that Russia has not altered its position that the IAEA -- and not the Security Council -- should take the primary role.


On the Net: www.iaea.org

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