New York Times: Atomic inspectors have found traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment linked to an Iranian military base, raising new questions about whether Iran harbors a clandestine program to make nuclear bombs, diplomats said yesterday. The New York Times
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
Atomic inspectors have found traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment linked to an Iranian military base, raising new questions about whether Iran harbors a clandestine program to make nuclear bombs, diplomats said yesterday.
It is the second such discovery in three years of United Nations inspections in Iran. As the Security Council debates how to handle the atomic impasse with Tehran, the finding is likely to deepen skepticism about Iran’s claims that its program is entirely peaceful.
Yesterday, diplomats familiar with the discovery said its ultimate significance was unclear. “There are still lots of questions,” a senior European diplomat said. “So it’s not a smoking gun.” They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The main puzzle, the senior diplomat added, is whether the traces of highly enriched uranium could be explained by the inadvertent contamination of machinery that Iran obtained abroad. Even so, the diplomat said, that explanation would still link the discovery to Iran’s military, which dissidents have long accused of concealing a secret effort to make an atom bomb.
Worse, he said, would be an outcome suggesting that Iran had enriched the uranium to a level far beyond most peaceful uses. He said further analysis of the samples might provide an unambiguous answer.
European diplomats said the traces of highly enriched uranium had been found by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency on equipment linked to the Military Physics Research Center at the Lavizan-Shian base. Iran leveled Lavizan more than two years ago, stirring suspicions that it had been part of a secret nuclear program.
Last night, a senior Bush administration official said the United States had long expected that some traces of nuclear activity would be linked to the demolished base. But he added that Washington also expected Iran would claim that the traces came from elsewhere.
Highly enriched uranium contains 20 percent or more of a rare form of uranium, known as its 235 isotope. Bomb-grade uranium is usually defined as 80 percent or more, and can be fashioned into the core of a nuclear weapon. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained 140 pounds of highly enriched uranium.
The senior European diplomat said the samples from Iran indicated the presence of highly enriched, but not necessarily bomb-grade, uranium.
Iran says its atomic program is meant to enrich uranium to the relatively low grades needed for the production of electrical power in nuclear reactors, about 3 or 4 percent, a level that the inspectors recently confirmed. But the United States and some of its allies call the Iranian effort a cover for the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.
Iranian officials have said that the Lavizan base was established in 1989 to provide scientific advice to the Defense Ministry. Atomic inspectors say one of its functions was to acquire materials and equipment that, if diverted from benign research, could be used to enrich uranium.
Despite the base’s destruction, the inspectors, starting in 2004, were eventually able to locate some equipment linked to the base, and to examine it for signs of nuclear materials. The I.A.E.A.’s most recent report on Iran, issued on April 28, mentioned the analysis but no conclusions.
In interviews, diplomats said environmental samples from the equipment were sent to the agency’s center in Seibersdorf, Austria, one of the world’s top laboratories for atomic sleuthing. Following the usual practice, the samples were then sent to a network of laboratories around the globe to confirm the findings.
It was unclear if the sampled equipment came from the Lavizan base or from a technical school associated with it. The I.A.E.A. report said the samples came from “equipment said to have been procured for use by the university.”
For two years, the inspectors pressed hard to track down materials from the base, in part because an Iranian opposition group had charged that the authorities had removed enrichment equipment from Lavizan before demolishing the buildings and carting off the rubble.
The first episode involving a mystery of highly enriched uranium began in late 2003, when the inspectors did environmental sampling of some Iranian centrifuges machines that spin extremely quickly to enrich, or concentrate, uranium into fuel for reactors and bombs and found traces of the radioactive material.
The finding set off international alarm about the country’s intentions, and raised questions about where the material had originated. Iran claimed it was contamination from imported equipment. The agency found that at least some of the highly enriched uranium came from equipment imported from Pakistan.
Diplomats said the agency was comparing its knowledge of the signatures of the Pakistani uranium to that found on the equipment linked to the Lavizan base. If it matches, one diplomat said, that would tend to support accidental contamination.
“If it doesn’t,” he added, “it raises an interesting issue.” The agency, in its April report, said, “Further access to the procured equipment is necessary.” But diplomats cautioned that such access and cooperation were unlikely to occur.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington for this article.