Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Iran gives reporters rare glimpse of uranium enrichment

Aresu Eqbali, Middle East Online:
Iran on Wednesday gave reporters a rare glimpse of the heavily-defended centerpiece of its controversial nuclear programme, sending another clear message that it was eager to resume sensitive enrichment activities.

"The people involved in the project are frustrated by the suspension," Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, said after a group of some 50 journalists were allowed to accompany President Mohammad Khatami on a tour of the sprawling facility. READ MORE

"They hope there is an agreement with the Europeans so that all activities can be resumed. Enrichment is Iran's right," he said, referring to negotiations with Britain, France and Germany aimed at easing international alarm over the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions.

The uranium enrichment site near Natanz south of Tehran has for more than two years been at the centre of fears the country is striving to acquire the capacity to develop an atomic bomb.

On the approach to the facility, dozens of anti-aircraft gun placements could be seen.

An exiled Iranian opposition group blew the whistle on the site's existence in August 2002, revealing the construction of a vast underground enrichment facility as well as a nearby heavy-water production facility at Arak.

Iran eventually declared both sites to the UN's nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which has been probing the country ever since.

"It is an online monitoring system. Around the clock," Saeedi said of the IAEA monitoring. "This is the strictest level of safeguards monitoring."

"We want to produce nuclear fuel, it is a clear request of Iran to do so just like Japan, Germany and Brazil."

Reporters were briefly shown around the interior of the facility - situated around 270 kilometers (170 miles) south of Tehran - with explanations stating that it was also eartquake-proof. No centrifuges were visible during the tour.

Britain, France and Germany are engaged in a diplomatic effort aimed at securing "objective guarantees" from Iran that it will not seek nuclear weapons, and in return are offering a package of incentives.

But the sticking point is uranium enrichment, a process that can make fuel for atomic energy reactors but also the core of a nuclear weapon.

The Europeans would prefer Iran to abandon its nuclear fuel cycle work altogether, but Iran is so far standing by what it says is a right to be able to fully exploit peaceful nuclear technology.

According to Saeedi, Iran only intends to produce reactor fuel at Natanz.