By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - Plans by Iran to manufacture uranium metal suggest Tehran could have had ambitions to develop capacity for atomic arms production, Western diplomats and a prominent nuclear analyst said on Tuesday.
A report by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), circulated on Monday, said Iran's stated purpose for uranium metal work -- to use it in its laser enrichment programme -- was "credible".
Western diplomats acknowledged Uranium metal does have some, limited civilian applications. But they were sceptical about the explanation offered by Iran, which denies U.S. accusations its nuclear power programme is a front for atomic arms development.
The IAEA report, a summary of its two-year investigation of Iran's nuclear programme, said Iran had not diverted any of its declared nuclear materials to a weapons programme, but did not rule out the possibility that secret atomic activities existed.
Diplomats and analysts said some issues covered in the 32-page report appeared to support the U.S. view that Iran has bomb plans. They cited Iran's forays into uranium metallurgy.
The report said Tehran planned to buy uranium abroad with 19.7 percent uranium-235, the atom needed in big concentrations in weapons, and transform it into metal. The 19.7 percent enrichment level is well above what Iran needs for power plants.
"This looks like it was a programme to make weapons-grade uranium metal disguised as one focused on making 19.7 percent enriched uranium metal," David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and head of the Institute for Science and International Security think-tank, told Reuters.
Western diplomats questioned were also wary.
"There's no reason why these guys should be playing around with uranium metal, and you don't do laser enrichment to put electricity in a light bulb," said a Western diplomat on the IAEA's 35-member board of governors.
MORE SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET?
Jon Wolfsthal, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think-tank, said Iran may have more skeletons in its closet.
"Iran could have nuclear activities hidden from the IAEA," he said. "The picture in Iran is clearer, but far from crystal."
Several diplomats agreed. They said the IAEA report included suspicious issues that have never been fully explained by Iran.
One has to do with Iran's experiments with polonium-210, a substance that has few civilian uses but can be combined with beryllium to spark a chain reaction in an atomic weapon.
Iran says it tried to make polonium over a decade ago for use in atomic batteries, like those used in U.S. space probes.
But the IAEA said it was "somewhat uncertain regarding the plausibility of the stated purpose of the experiments given the very limited applications of short-lived polonium-210 sources."
Still, Wolfsthal said that Iran's decision to suspend its enrichment programme and related activites gave it a chance to be forgiven for concealing this programme for 18 years.
"Iran can put all of its past violations behind them if they remain committed to suspension and eventual termination of its nuclear production activities," Wolfsthal said.
Iran informed that IAEA on Sunday that it would suspend its uranium enrichment programme as part of a deal worked out with European Union negotiators from France, Britain and Germany.
Diplomats said the suspension, combined with what diplomats said was IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's partial acquittal of Iran in Monday's report, will protect Tehran from a referral to the U.N. Security Council when the IAEA board meets on Nov. 25.
But European diplomats said this protection from a Security Council referral, as Washington wants, could vanish if Iran resumed its enrichment programme as it says it will do soon.