Iran Nuclear NewsAtomic agency opts to snub Iran’s request for help...

Atomic agency opts to snub Iran’s request for help with reactor

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New York Times: After days of diplomatic wrangling, the International Atomic Energy Agency is poised to rebuff a request by Iran for technical help with a heavy-water nuclear reactor that would produce plutonium as a byproduct, several diplomats said Wednesday. The New York Times

By MARK LANDLER
Published: November 23, 2006

FRANKFURT, Nov. 22 — After days of diplomatic wrangling, the International Atomic Energy Agency is poised to rebuff a request by Iran for technical help with a heavy-water nuclear reactor that would produce plutonium as a byproduct, several diplomats said Wednesday.

The decision, which could be ratified by the agency’s 35-member governing board on Thursday, is carefully written to preserve unity, the diplomats said.

Rather than decline Iran’s request directly, the board plans to remove the item from a package of several hundred other requests for technical assistance, which it will then adopt by consensus, the diplomats said. Iran could resubmit its request in 2008.

The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity, not wanting to comment publicly before the vote.

The debate over the reactor, near Arak, has become particularly nettlesome because it involves a part of the agency’s portfolio — technical assistance for the peaceful development of nuclear power — that is usually less political.

Iran says it is building the heavy-water reactor to produce radioactive isotopes for medical treatments. Supporters of Iran said rejecting this request would politicize the agency’s technical assistance work, while the agency said it had no legal grounds to turn down Iran.

Citing broader doubts about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, the United States, European countries and other members opposed helping Iran with a plant that would yield plutonium, a fuel used in nuclear weapons.

The United States has made no secret of its opposition. “Given past board decisions, widespread mistrust of Iran’s nuclear program and risk of plutonium being diverted for use in a weapon, the U.S., Europe and other board members cannot agree to have the I.A.E.A. assist the project at Arak,” said Matthew Boland, a spokesman for the United States mission in Vienna, where the atomic energy agency is based.

The agency has long been concerned about the Arak reactor, which is being built in the desert southwest of Tehran, and has repeatedly asked Iran to abandon the project. But Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inaugurated the plant in August, saying, “the Iranian people are determined to take big steps.”

Much of the scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program has focused on its drive to enrich uranium, which, with plutonium, is the main fuel for nuclear weapons. Agency officials noted that Iran’s request would not contribute to activities related to enrichment or reprocessing.

Still, experts on nuclear proliferation note that plutonium is potentially more dangerous than uranium because less of it is needed to produce a sizable blast.

How the agency’s board would navigate the diplomatic shoals at its meeting on Thursday was not clear.

“We don’t know whether the wording will say the program is deferred or whether it’s just going to be in limbo,” another diplomat said. Among the most vocal countries, this person said, were France, which opposed Iran’s request, and Cuba, which supported Tehran.

A draft summary of the agency’s technical aid committee meeting, held Monday and Tuesday, hints at sharp divisions among the members. Some countries, the report says, threatened to withhold support from the entire assistance package if the Arak project were included.

Others said Iran’s request should not be subject to “political, economic, military or other conditions.” They viewed the opposition to Iran as a double standard, which they said could harm the agency’s credibility.

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