The Guardian: A breakthrough deal between Iran and the EU aimed at defusing an international crisis over Tehran’s alleged nuclear ambitions was thrown into uncertainty last night when diplomats said Iran was rushing to process feed material for the manufacture of bomb-grade uranium. The Guardian
Ian Traynor in Zagreb and Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
A breakthrough deal between Iran and the EU aimed at defusing an international crisis over Tehran’s alleged nuclear ambitions was thrown into uncertainty last night when diplomats said Iran was rushing to process feed material for the manufacture of bomb-grade uranium.
Only days after Tehran sealed an agreement with the EU over its nuclear activities and days before a crucial meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna about Iran, diplomats monitoring the issue said Tehran was “going flat out” to convert tonnes of uranium concentrate into uranium hexafluoride, the gas that is centrifuged for enrichment into nuclear fuel or for nuclear warheads.
“It’s outrageous,” said one well-placed non-American diplomat in Vienna, adding that the move could wreck a delicate agreement that took the heat off Iran, effectively calling a truce in the two-year dispute.
Another European diplomat in Vienna said the Iranians had started manufacturing the uranium gas on Thursday and were going as fast as possible to process the uranium before a deadline on Monday for a complete freeze on all activities connected with uranium enrichment.
Uranium enrichment is the key to making a nuclear bomb. Iran has a sophisticated enrichment programme which it insists is designed purely for power plants it does not have and will not have for years. But under the deal with Britain, Germany and France reached last Sunday, Iran is to suspend all enrichment activities next week and IAEA inspectors are to verify the freeze.
This week the IAEA chief, Mohammed El Baradei, circulated a broadly positive report on Iran’s nuclear programme ahead of next week’s meeting of the 35-strong IAEA board that had been expected to result in a victory for Iran and a defeat for US hawks pressing to have Tehran penalised for its breaches of international nuclear commitments.
That scenario was upset by last night’s reports. The information on the uranium hexafluoride came from IAEA inspectors, diplomats said, although other sources close to the IAEA believed there was some confusion over the science of uranium enrichment.
Under the agreement with the EU, Iran is to be allowed to convert uranium concentrate into uranium tetrafluoride, an intermediate stage in uranium enrichment, but not to hexafluoride, which is the final stage before feeding the gas into centrifuges for enrichment.
In the El Baradei report circulated on Monday, the IAEA chief said that Iran had in formed him last Sunday that the IAEA could “coordinate” all conversion of uranium and that such conversion would not proceed beyond uranium tetrafluoride. As of last month, Mr El Baradei said, the agency’s inspectors had found that no uranium concentrate was being turned into uranium hexafluoride.
“This makes no sense,” said one source. “Why would they risk their deal with the EU three days before it comes into force?”
If confirmed, the move is certain to upset the cautious optimism about containing the problem.
The reports of uranium hexafluoride conversion were denied categorically in Tehran last night.
The development could also play into the hands of hawks in Washington, where the drumbeat for regime change has only intensified with the EU-brokered deal. Administration hawks dismiss the agreement as a sham.
This week the Bush administration said Iran was actively trying to develop a missile delivery system for a nuclear bomb. The outgoing secretary of state, Colin Powell, told reporters: “We are talking about information that says they not only have missiles but information that suggests they are working hard about how to put the two together.”