Reuters: Intelligence reports accuse Iran of buying large amounts of a metal that has many civilian uses but which some U.S. and other countries' officials believe Tehran
wanted exclusively for an atomic bomb, diplomats say. Washington says that oil-rich Iran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of a nuclear energy programme. Reuters

By Louis Charbonneau

VIENNA - Intelligence reports accuse Iran of buying large amounts of a metal that has many civilian uses but which some U.S. and other countries' officials believe Tehran wanted exclusively for an atomic bomb, diplomats say.

Washington says that oil-rich Iran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of a nuclear energy programme. Tehran denies this, insisting its atomic ambitions are limited to the peaceful generation of electricity.

One non-U.S. diplomat, citing intelligence gathered by his country, said Iran bought "huge amounts of beryllium from a number of countries" but gave no details on the amount or states involved.

Beryllium has a long list of innocent uses, such as in spark plugs and X-ray equipment. However, the metal can also be combined with polonium-210 (Po-210), a substance Iran is known to have worked with, to initiate the chain reaction in a bomb.

Other diplomats and one U.S. official -- all speaking on condition of anonymity -- said they had intelligence Iran had acquired and worked with beryllium.

They also said the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency knows about it but has withheld this information from the IAEA board of governors.

This has annoyed the United States, whose officials have complained privately that IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei does not always follow up credible intelligence provided to his agency.

"The U.S. is often making mischief, but they obviously really believe there's something there," David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and head of a Washington-based think-tank told Reuters about the beryllium question.

BERYLLIUM IN SPEECH TO IAEA

The head of the U.S. delegation to the IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, brought up beryllium in a speech to the IAEA board of governors this week.

"We still wonder whether Iran ever worked with beryllium, which combined with Po-210 forms a neutron source that can be used for initiating a nuclear weapon," Jackie Sanders said.

"Iranian officials have claimed in the past that Iran never procured or worked with beryllium. We wonder whether the IAEA has found evidence suggesting otherwise."

This week the IAEA board rejected U.S. demands that Iran be referred to the U.N. Security Council for economic sanctions and passed an EU-sponsored resolution calling on Iran to freeze sensitive parts of its atomic programme, while noting that the freeze was "voluntary" and "non-binding".

Observers say the beryllium issue could help Washington persuade the IAEA board Iran is trying to produce an atomic bomb.

If it is determined ElBaradei knew Iran had worked with beryllium it could undermine his attempt to be re-elected as the agency's chief. He has said he would seek a third term but the United States is opposed.

EARLY DRAFT

Washington hardliners, diplomats in Vienna say, see ElBaradei as soft on Iran and deliberately undermining their attempt to push the IAEA board to get tough on Tehran.

One non-U.S. diplomat, who did not hide his desire to see ElBaradei out of his job, gave Reuters a three-page memorandum that said Tehran's work with beryllium was mentioned in an early draft of the IAEA's September report on inspections in Iran but was later removed after the Iranians objected.

"This early draft contained issues that later were not included in the final report, such as the beryllium issue, which was omitted after negotiations between the Iranians and ElBaradei," the document said, citing sources with "proven access" inside the IAEA.

Two other diplomats, including a U.S. official, confirmed this. The issue was also not in the IAEA's November report.

The IAEA declined to comment.