Iran begins fresh atom enrichment despite powers’ offer
By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran began a fresh phase of uranium
enrichment this week just as world powers presented it with
incentives to halt nuclear fuel work, according to a U.N.
nuclear watchdog agency report obtained by Reuters on Thursday.
The report, emailed to the 35 states on the International
Atomic Energy Agency’s governing board ahead of a meeting
starting on Monday, also said Iran was pressing ahead with
installing more cascades of centrifuge enrichment machines.
Authored by IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei, the report said
Iran resumed feeding “UF6″ uranium gas into its pilot
164-centrifuge cascade in Natanz on Tuesday after a pause of
several weeks to do test runs of the machines without UF6.
Tuesday was the day European Union foreign policy chief
Javier Solana visited Tehran to hand over a packet of economic,
technological and security incentives for Iran to suspend work
which could eventually produce atomic bombs.
The Islamic Republic says the goal of its nuclear fuel
program is solely electricity generation for its economy. The
West suspects Iran, the world’s No. 4 oil producer, of creating
a smokescreen for atomic bombmaking.
In April, Iran appeared to defeat a Western bid to deny it
enrichment technology when, for the first time, it purified a
small amount of uranium at Natanz for use as power plant fuel.
A Western intelligence source told Reuters hours before the
IAEA report that Iran stopped feeding gas into its pilot
cascade later in April because of technical glitches, but then
resolved them, allowing enrichment work to resume on Tuesday.
“This underlines the fact that the temporary halt was
technical in nature. It’s a continuation of Iranian policy to
profit from all worlds, dialogue to gain time while continuing
to strive for an atomic bomb,” the source said.
ElBaradei’s report said Iran had also launched a new drive
on Tuesday to transform raw uranium ore into UF6 gas at its
Isfahan conversion plant. As of April, Iran has stockpiled 118
tonnes of UF6 at Isfahan.
A senior U.N. official familiar with ElBaradei’s report
said a few of the 164 centrifuges in the Natanz cascade had
crashed since April but Iranian scientists apparently isolated
the problem and kept the rest of the network running.
But he said the pause in enrichment could also have been
prompted by a wish “not to rock the boat” at a crunch time in
Iran’s stand-off with six world powers, who agreed last week to
consider sanctions if Tehran rebuffed the incentives package.
Iran has said it will seriously consider the overture but
it has given no sign of backing away from its insistence on an
indigenous nuclear fuel-enrichment program.
Since the end of April, Iran had also been test-feeding UF6
gas into two separated centrifuges, the report said. It was
unclear whether these were the embryos for two more cascades of
164 interconnected centrifuges it is building at Natanz.
With 164 centrifuges, it would take more than 10 years to
produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU), the fissile core
of an atomic bomb. But Iran has said it aims to have 3,000
centrifuges installed by early 2007, enough to yield highly
enriched uranium for a warhead within a year if spinning
The report confirmed word from diplomats that new traces of
hihgly enriched uranium had turned up on equipment that may
have come from Lavizan-Shian, a former military site razed by
Iran in 2004 before IAEA inspectors could get there to examine
Iran has said the traces, detected earlier at some other
sites in Iran, originated on equipment imported from Pakistan,
which has nuclear arms, and did not come from Iranian activity.
Inspectors would need to take samples of further equipment
and interview relevant officials to pinpoint the particles’
origin of the highly enriched uranium but Iran continued to
ignore requests for access, the senior U.N. official said.
ElBaradei’s report said Tehran in general was still
stonewalling IAEA probes into military links with nuclear fuel
work, echoing earlier assessments.
Vienna diplomats familiar with IAEA inquiries say Iran is
withholding answers as bargaining chips for any talks with U.N.
Security Council powers on its nuclear goals.