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Evidence May Indicate Iran Closing In on Nuclear Arms

August 27, 2003|Douglas Frantz | Times Staff Writer

International inspectors confirmed Tuesday that particles of highly enriched uranium had been discovered in two separate samples taken at a nuclear facility in Iran, raising the possibility that Tehran is further along in developing a nuclear weapon than experts had predicted.

The finding was contained in a confidential report prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that provided detailed descriptions of numerous contradictions and misstatements by Iran in recent months. A copy of the 10-page report was provided to The Times by a source outside the agency.

It was clear that critical questions about Iran's nuclear program remained unanswered in the report, particularly about uranium enrichment, the purification process that creates fuel for reactors or material for weapons. Those questions are significant because the answers could indicate a weapons program and because Iran is required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to disclose any such enrichment to the IAEA.

The report did not link the minute traces of highly enriched uranium found at the Natanz nuclear plant in central Iran to any weapons effort. Although a diplomat who reviewed the report said the particles were not proof that Iran had enriched uranium, he said that discovery and other findings were strong evidence that Tehran had lied about its nuclear activities.

Iran insists that it is only building commercial nuclear reactors to generate electricity and dismissed the particles as contamination from before it acquired the equipment. The United States has accused Iran of using its commercial program to disguise a clandestine effort to build a nuclear bomb.

Attempts to reach Iranian officials in Vienna and Tehran were unsuccessful. The official Iranian news agency IRNA said that Iran's representative to the IAEA said the country was ready to sign an agreement to allow more intrusive international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

"Iran would like to clarify some aspects regarding the preservation of its sovereignty due to the so-called undeclared inspections that are envisioned," Ali Akbar Salehi, the representative, was quoted as saying.

Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA in Vienna, said in a telephone interview that inspectors were analyzing information from five trips to Iran since the previous report, issued in June. That document criticized Iran for concealing previous nuclear activities and was somewhat harsher in tone.

The latest report said the discovery of the highly enriched uranium particles at Natanz and an Iranian admission of uranium conversion at another facility appeared to contradict earlier claims by Iran that it had not enriched uranium.

Iran also told the agency in recent days that it had obtained technology for enriching uranium from unidentified foreign sources in the late 1980s, the report said. Iran had previously told the agency that it had developed the technology on its own, beginning in 1997.

Although the report praised Tehran for improved cooperation, it also complained that "information and access were at times slow in coming and incremental."

The agency's 35-nation board is scheduled to meet Sept. 8. The United States is expected to push for a finding that Iran is not complying with the nonproliferation treaty and ask for the matter to be referred to the United Nations Security Council. The council could order sanctions.

A senior Bush administration official said in a telephone interview from Washington that the United States will certainly press for the issue to be taken to the Security Council and for Iran to be declared in noncompliance.

"We are disappointed that the IAEA did not come right out and say that the Iranians have been lying to them and have not been cooperating. I wish the IAEA could be more blunt about this, but the facts are in the report," the official said.

The discrepancy was one of a series of contradictions and gaps in the report in which Iran acknowledged specific activities only after repeated requests and outside pressure.

"What seems clear is that Iran has got caught up in some lies and is giving ground grudgingly and slowly," said a European diplomat who had been briefed on the new report.

For months inspectors tried to get access to a small workshop outside Tehran called Kalaye Electric Co. An Iranian exile group had said that the facility, officially described as a watch factory, was part of the secret nuclear complex.

In March and again in June, inspectors were denied full access to the site. In July, Iran told the agency that it was not yet willing to permit samples to be taken at Kalaye.

In meetings in Tehran on Aug. 9, Iran acknowledged for the first time that its enrichment activities were concentrated at Kalaye from 1997 until last year and it agreed to permit the inspectors to take environmental samples to determine whether uranium was enriched there.

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