Reuters: A pending U.N. watchdog report will say Iran has resolved questions about traces of bomb-grade uranium found at atomic research sites, moving an inquiry into Tehran’s nuclear past towards completion, diplomats said. By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – A pending U.N. watchdog report will say Iran has resolved questions about traces of bomb-grade uranium found at atomic research sites, moving an inquiry into Tehran’s nuclear past towards completion, diplomats said.
But they said it appeared Iran would not be forthcoming enough to settle one remaining weighty issue — alleged links between uranium processing, high explosives tests and missile design — in time for the report, due between February 20 and 22.
Big powers welcome the watchdog’s progress in uncovering Iran’s past covert work. But they worry more about the present — Tehran testing advanced centrifuges that would allow it to enrich uranium faster and acquire the means to build atom bombs.
They have drafted wider U.N. sanctions against Iran, citing its curbs on inspections hampering efforts to verify its nuclear work has no military dimensions, and its continued defiance of U.N. Security Council orders to suspend the work to win trust.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said he has made “good progress” in resolving outstanding issues. Security Council members are expected to scrutinize the details in his report before finalizing the new sanctions text.
Diplomats familiar with IAEA investigations said Iran had clarified how and why particles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) turned up in inspections at Tehran’s technical university and physics research centre.
They declined to give details of their reasoning but some analysts believe the report could say that the highly enriched uranium came from outside the country rather than from Iranian attempts to build a bomb.
In a separate earlier case, the IAEA accepted Iranian statements that HEU traces detected in environmental sampling by inspectors came with equipment obtained from a Pakistani-led nuclear smuggling network broken up a few years ago.
“But the important issue is not so much what Iran did in the past but what it’s doing now and might do in future,” Mark Fitzpatrick, chief non-proliferation expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said.
“To be able to detect future clandestine enrichment, the IAEA needs unrestricted access across the country and to be able to conduct widespread environmental sampling,” he told Reuters.
Diplomats said Iran had not lived up to a January vow to cooperate enough for the IAEA to end the inquiry in February by addressing fears it tried to “weaponize” nuclear materials.
U.S. intelligence given to inspectors in 2005 pointed to Iranian work on uranium processing, explosives tests and research on a missile warhead design under military supervision, a connection Iran has rejected as propaganda.
A senior IAEA official said on Tuesday inspectors needed more time to share the findings with Iran and gets its response.
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said in December that Iran shelved a clandestine weapons program in 2003.
But the NIE also said Iran would gradually acquire the latent capability to assemble nuclear weapons through its considerable expansion of enrichment activities since then.
A new centrifuge Iran is testing could refine uranium 2-3 times quicker than the erratic old model now on line in its Natanz enrichment hall, diplomats have told Reuters.
“(This is) deeply disturbing … It seems to us that the proper response here would be a third sanctions resolution and that resolution is on the table,” U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
Tehran says it wants to refine uranium only to the low level needed for electricity so it can export more of its oil wealth. Its declared enrichment sites are under regular IAEA monitoring.
There are indications of new Iranian transparency about its current program after Tehran for the first time let top IAEA officials visit an advanced centrifuge workshop last month.
Hitherto ElBaradei has spoken darkly of “diminishing knowledge” about the program due to limits on IAEA access.