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Iran Failed in Nuclear Reporting

U.N. watchdog agency says Tehran secretly imported and processed uranium. A U.S. official calls the finding 'deeply troubling.'

June 07, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Iran has secretly imported and processed nuclear material and built facilities to refine and store it, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency concluded in a confidential report Friday.

The internal report, prepared for the agency's board meeting June 16, said that after being confronted by International Atomic Energy Agency officials, Iran has begun to provide the agency with more information to meet its safeguard obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The document confirms U.S. intelligence and Iranian opposition groups' reports that the country has been clandestinely developing nuclear facilities, although Iran insists they are meant only for power generation. The report also said Iran has enriched small amounts of uranium -- not large or refined enough for a weapon, but a significant amount for research and development.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the report "deeply troubling" but said that the U.S. would work with the IAEA board on how to address the issue. He dismissed the possibility of U.S. intervention, despite a recent rise in rhetoric in the administration to press harder for a change of government in Iran, which President Bush once termed part of an "axis of evil."

"We've known for some time that Iran has a nuclear weapons program," Boucher said Friday. "Iran's clandestine nuclear program represents a serious challenge to regional stability, the entire international community and to the global nonproliferation regime."

With U.S. troops in Iraq, Iran's neighbor, and the negative IAEA finding, the heat on Tehran could rise. Boucher's rejection of any action notwithstanding, U.S. officials acknowledge that top levels of the administration are divided on how hard to push for change in Iran.

"There are different opinions at this point, and we have to get our own thoughts in order depending on what we hear," a U.S. official said. "There are still a lot of unanswered questions."

Iran on Friday denied breaching the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. "We have answers for all the points mentioned," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Reuters news service, which broke the story Friday. "We have done nothing which violates our commitments."

While Boucher declined to predict the next steps the United States might take, diplomats who have seen the document said that the IAEA's 35-member board would probably press Iran to accept an amendment to the nonproliferation treaty that would allow more vigorous inspections and complete access to any site.

"The sense is that taking a real hard-line approach may not be constructive," one diplomat said. "It may be better to get more access and information than to have the door shut completely."

Iran revealed two nuclear development sites in September after an Iranian opposition group asserted that Tehran had secretly built facilities for a nuclear weapons program. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei visited the sites in February: two large underground enrichment plants at Natanz and a heavy-water production plant at Arak. Iran later declared that it planned to build a heavy-water research reactor at Arak.

Through the visit and later exchanges with Iranian authorities, the IAEA determined that Iran had imported 2 tons of natural uranium in 1991 without declaring it. The supplier is not named in the report, but a well-placed source identified it as China.

Iran also failed to declare that it had built facilities to process and store uranium and radioactive waste.

The effective yield was a small amount of low-grade uranium -- only 0.29 pounds -- while a nuclear weapon would require about 40 pounds of highly enriched uranium, the IAEA said. But the report added that it is enough material to conduct further research and development.

"Although the quantities of nuclear material involved have not been large, and the material would need further processing before being suitable for use as the fissile material component of a nuclear explosive device, the number of failures by Iran to report the material, facilities and activities in question in a timely manner as it is obliged to do pursuant to its Safeguards Agreement is a matter of concern," the report concludes.

"While these failures are in the process of being rectified by Iran, the process of verifying the correctness and completeness of the Iranian declarations is still ongoing," the report says.

During the February visit, ElBaradei was reportedly stunned by the sophistication of the facilities and centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium -- and alarmed that Iran had built it all in secret.

After disclosing the sites in October, Iranian officials told ElBaradei that because they had no nuclear material yet, they didn't feel obliged to report the program to the IAEA, and said that the facilities to enrich uranium were for future reactors.

"That's like saying you're buying gas for a car that you don't have yet," one diplomat said.

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