Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Iran announces further resumption of atomic work

Paul Hughes, Reuters:
Iran announced on Tuesday it would resume nuclear fuel research, a move sure to anger Washington and the European Union which fear the Islamic state wants to make atomic fuel to build bombs.

Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said Tehran had informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog in writing that the nuclear work would resume shortly.

"Within the next few days we will start researching that field in cooperation and coordination with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)," he told state television.

The news coincided with strong hints from Iran's Foreign Ministry that Tehran planned to reject a Russian compromise proposal aimed at defusing Iran's nuclear row with the West. READ MORE

The two developments were likely to spark renewed calls in the West for the case to be referred to the U.N. Security Council, where Iran could face political or economic sanctions.

A referral vote could be held at the next meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation governing board, scheduled for March 6. At its last session in November, the board opted to put off any vote to give time for Russia's proposal to bear fruit.

"The latest moves by Iran may strengthen the hands of those who want to report this matter to the Security Council at the March board," said a senior diplomat close to the IAEA, referring to the European Union and United States.

But he said the IAEA would probably seek clarification from Iran on the sort of research it had in mind. He said the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency would in theory have no problem if Iran subjected fuel cycle research to the IAEA's safeguards regime.

"This is more a political than technical issue now."

Research on nuclear fuel may include some small-scale testing of sensitive atomic processes, including uranium enrichment, an activity Iran has said it is keen to master.

The IAEA discovered in 2003 that Iran had conducted considerable clandestine atomic research, including enrichment tests, since the mid-1980s. But it has not detected any clear proof that Tehran wants to build atomic weapons.


Iran, which says its nuclear program will only be used for peaceful purposes, suspended atomic fuel research as well as all uranium processing and enrichment under negotiations with the EU trio of Britain, Germany and France that began in 2003.

Tehran began to roll back its suspension of nuclear work in August by restarting its uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan, prompting the "EU3" to freeze its talks with Iran. The talks resumed in December and the sides are to meet again this month.

"Iran's decision will probably raise the temperature around the talks," said the diplomat close to the IAEA.

Saeedi stressed that the actual enrichment of uranium, through injecting gas into centrifuges at Iran's unfinished Natanz facility, would not be resumed for now. "That will be a separate issue on which no decision has yet been made," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi poured cold water on a Russian proposal aimed at easing Western concerns that Iran could get its hands on bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium.

Asefi said a proposed joint venture to enrich uranium in Russia was only acceptable if it was in addition to enrichment facilities in Iran.

"The Russian proposal is ambiguous," Asefi told a weekly news conference. "If they want to propose enrichment (only) in Russia we have said it is not acceptable. But if it is a complementary or parallel plan, we will study that."

A Russian delegation, headed by a senior Foreign Ministry official is due in Tehran on January 7 to hold further talks on the proposal.

"We are waiting for the Russians to come to Iran before deciding whether to reject it or not, or to accept something in between. Let them bring their proposal and later we'll see if it is acceptable or not," he said.

(Additional reporting by Parinoosh Arami and Alireza Ronaghi in Tehran and Mark Heinrich in Vienna)