Iran Nuclear NewsIAEA probe stalls, Iran slowly boosts atom enrichment

IAEA probe stalls, Iran slowly boosts atom enrichment

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ImageReuters: A U.N. watchdog inquiry into whether Iran covertly researched how to assemble an atom bomb appears to have stalled while Tehran slowly but steadily builds up a sensitive uranium-enrichment program, diplomats say.

By Mark Heinrich

ImageVIENNA (Reuters) – A U.N. watchdog inquiry into whether Iran covertly researched how to assemble an atom bomb appears to have stalled while Tehran slowly but steadily builds up a sensitive uranium-enrichment program, diplomats say.

They expect this to be reflected in an International Atomic Energy Agency report on Monday at a time of faltering pressure on Iran, with Russia and Western powers at loggerheads over Georgia and the Bush administration on the way out.

In May, the IAEA said Iran seemed to be withholding information needed to explain intelligence allegations that it had fused projects to process uranium, test high explosives and modify a missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.

IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei called on Iran then for "full disclosure" — namely, going beyond flat denials without providing access to sites, documentation or relevant officials for interviews to substantiate their stance.

Follow-up talks were held in Vienna and Tehran over the summer, but appear to have hit a wall, said diplomats accredited to the IAEA, who asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on confidential matters.

"The word out is — no progress on clarifying possible military dimensions to the program," said a European diplomat who, like others, cautioned that a complete picture would emerge only in the pending report by ElBaradei.

Two diplomats said Iran refused IAEA access in August to workshops possibly involved in redesigning missile cones.

"We are told the report will be negative," said another diplomat. Others said Iran had cut cooperation with the IAEA to the minimum under its nuclear safeguards accord with the agency.

That means allowing routine, limited inspections of declared nuclear sites to go on, but not granting extra access Iran says would compromise its security and involve solely conventional military installations beyond the IAEA's writ.

"They don't want visits to national defense sites," said a senior diplomat versed in Iran-IAEA dealings.

He said Iran feared its enemies — the United States and Israel — could use such visits to "get coordinates for future attacks and identify key personnel for targeting.

"It's not just a simple tale of Iranian stonewalling. But there's a stalemate. The veracity of the alleged (bomb) studies cannot be proven conclusively," he said.

Tehran has dismissed the mainly U.S. intelligence on "weaponisation" research as fabricated or irrelevant.

Western powers could seek a resolution at the September 22-26 meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors demanding Iranian compliance, depending on how downbeat the report is, but such pressure would be largely symbolic.

ENRICHMENT WORK MOVES AHEAD

With Iran-EU talks on an enrichment suspension in exchange for trade incentives snagged over preconditions, the IAEA report is likely to show Iran has gradually expanded its enrichment capacity, diplomats say.

They agreed with Iranian accounts that about 4,000 nuclear centrifuges are operating, with the great majority refining uranium and the rest being run in with mechanical or vacuum tests — up from some 3,300 operative in May.

"Four-thousand is quite enough to produce highly-enriched uranium for a small number of weapons or provide technical expertise and operational cover for a covert capability," a Western diplomat said, if the machines ran non-stop in unison.

But another diplomat said Iran's centrifuges were "not operating all together but by batches and they are still rotating at quite a low speed, at maximum 20 percent capacity".

He said Iran still seemed concerned about damage to the fragile, temperamental centrifuges it is using — based on an old 1970s design — if they were spun en masse at supersonic speed.

Iran has been testing an advanced, more durable centrifuge, able to enrich uranium 2-3 times faster, at a pilot plant, but does not appear to have introduced any in its main underground centrifuge production hall at Natanz, diplomats said.

Iran says it is enriching uranium not to yield atom bomb fuel, as Western powers suspect, but only to run nuclear power stations so it can export more of its oil and gas wealth.

But the Islamic Republic hid enrichment work until Iranian opposition exiles exposed it in 2002. IAEA investigations since then have been unable to verify the activity is wholly peaceful because of restricted access and a lack of Iranian transparency.

(Editing by Keith Weir)

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