February 7, 2006

Iran’s inspection curb hobbles key IAEA atom probe

By Mark Heinrich

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran's order that U.N. nuclear
surveillance gear be removed from key sites by mid-February may
prevent U.N. inspectors from discovering whether Tehran's
atomic drive has wholly peaceful aims, diplomats said.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog's board of governors voted on
Saturday to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council over fears
that it secretly wants to build atomic bombs. Iran, insisting
it wants only nuclear power, retaliated by halting compliance
with a U.N. system of short-notice nuclear inspections.

Diplomats said this could make it difficult for Mohamed
ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency,
to get clear answers for a sweeping report on nuclear activity
in Iran he is due to give at a March 6 IAEA board meeting.

"The IAEA's ability to verify an absence of undeclared
nuclear activity in Iran will be impaired," said a diplomat
from one of the European Union trio -- Germany, France and
Britain -- leading Western efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear

"If IAEA inspectors lose short-notice access to undeclared
nuclear materials and sites, the crux of IAEA investigations,
to ensure no diversions to bomb-making, some sort of Security
Council action after March 6 gets more likely."

While no sanctions against Iran are on the horizon given
opposition by veto-wielding Russia and China on the Council,
the IAEA report puts Tehran under the scrutiny of the world
body and a diplomatic showdown is brewing.

Confident that critics will eventually prefer not to
isolate the world's No. 4 oil exporter, Iran called off
voluntary cooperation with snap checks of nuclear sites and
vowed to pursue full-scale enrichment of uranium for nuclear
plant fuel.


Tehran told the IAEA to scrap "containment and surveillance
measures" under a 1997 Additional Protocol that gave inspectors
more intrusive powers than allowed by the IAEA's original
atomic safeguards covenant, the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty

If the Additional Protocol is not in force, IAEA inspectors
will have to give up to six months' notice to visit sites or
equipment not part of Iran's declared nuclear program.

This would deny them rapid access to areas in question,
including premises linked to the Iranian military where the
IAEA believes covert nuclear fuel research and uranium
enrichment experiments may have been carried out.

"The agency now won't be able to tell how far the Iranians
are ahead with enrichment, which may mean that estimates could
err on the side of more rather than less," Greenpeace nuclear
analyst Felicity Hill told Reuters.

"This creates a confidence vacuum. What the IAEA will be
unable to do is answer or calm some of the fears and expunge
rumors and doubts about Iran's true intentions."

Before the IAEA's 27-3 vote, ElBaradei said Tehran would
have a month-long "window of opportunity" before the March
board session to be open about its nuclear goals.

"If the IAEA wants to get to the bottom of past Iranian
practices, I don't see how it will be able to do that now,"
said another EU3 diplomat, who like others asked not to be
named because of the delicacy of Iran's standoff with the West.

"This is certainly bad news for ElBaradei's efforts."

Iran argues it has every right to leave the Additional
Protocol because its adherence to it was always voluntary --
Tehran had not ratified the measure.

It also says that the vote to notify the Security Council
has no legal standing because the IAEA has never found hard
proof of bomb-building in violation of the NPT.

But EU officials warn that Iran's curbs on inspections and
move to resume enrichment after a two-year moratorium could
alienate nations that might otherwise be sympathetic to its
case and heighten the prospect of steps toward punitive