By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - Iran says it wants to break U.N. seals and test "essential" parts for machines for nuclear work, diplomats said, adding this showed Iran's freeze on activity which could produce atomic weapons would be short-lived.
The Western diplomats, who are close to talks between Iran and the European Union's "big three" -- France, Britain and Germany -- said the Iranians had made this request despite the EU's insistence that it keep its promise to refrain from any and all activities linked to uranium enrichment.
"Iran wants to expand quality control checks and maintenance of 'non-essential' enrichment centrifuge parts to 'essential' centrifuge parts that have been sealed by the IAEA under the suspension," a diplomat close to the EU-Iran talks said on condition of anonymity.
Iran has already provoked sharp U.S. and EU criticism by conducting quality control tests of a so-called "non-essential" parts for centrifuges. Iran's voluntary freeze of sensitive nuclear work took effect in November.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, is monitoring the suspension, which Iran agreed to maintain while in talks with the Europeans.
A diplomat close to the IAEA confirmed the Iranian request. An IAEA spokeswoman, however, declined to comment.
"This is clearly a violation of the spirit of the suspension agreement," said one diplomat close to the EU-Iran talks. He added that the Europeans had made it clear Iran's demand to expand its centrifuge testing was unacceptable.
Diplomats close to the EU-Iran talks said this issue would come up next week during a new round of atomic talks in Geneva.
Washington accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy programme. Tehran denies this, saying its aim is the peaceful generation of electricity.
The EU also suspects Iran is developing the capability to produce atomic arms but hopes its offer of incentives will persuade Iran to end its uranium enrichment programme, which can produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons.
The Iranians have refused, saying no incentives can entice them to give up a programme they see as a sovereign right.
BUSH LEANS TOWARDS JOINING EU
In a significant shift in strategy toward an arch enemy, U.S. President George W. Bush was leaning toward backing Europe in offering incentives to Iran, U.S. officials said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the European negotiations with Iran were heading in the "right direction".
The diplomats who told Reuters about the Iranian request gave no indication that the EU trio was ready to walk away from the talks with Iran. But one said Tehran was clearly trying to demonstrate that the suspension "would be short-lived".
In a statement to the IAEA board of governors, the EU trio said Tehran's recent cleaning and quality control work on centrifuge parts was "of serious concern".
Iran first promised the EU3 it would suspend enrichment activities in October 2003, but that deal fell apart due to disagreement over whether the testing and manufacture of centrifuge components should be included in the freeze.