VIENNA — Iranian officials sent a letter to the United Nations nuclear agency Monday requesting that it remove by mid-month any seals and surveillance systems on Iranian facilities still being monitored by international inspectors. The letter also said Tehran would end all voluntary compliance with the U.N. group.
Although Iran officially reopened its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz on Jan. 10, parts of the facility are still under seals placed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.
Iran had been complying voluntarily with a set of rules that allowed inspections on short notice and the monitoring of many facilities, such as manufacturing plants, that make parts for its nuclear program. With voluntary compliance being terminated, access to those facilities as well as snap inspections will end.
The moves followed Saturday's vote by the 35-nation IAEA board of governors to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council because of Tehran's nuclear development program.
The watchdog atomic agency had many outstanding questions about Tehran's program and wanted more information about several locations where Iran is suspected of pursuing nuclear- and weapons-related research. But without voluntary cooperation, inspectors are unlikely to get the answers.
The letter sent to the IAEA, a copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times, reads in part: "all the Agency's containment and surveillance measures which were in place beyond the normal Agency safeguards measures should be removed by mid-February 2006."
The letter states that Iran is obligated to take these steps because a law its parliament passed in November says the country must end voluntary compliance and restart uranium enrichment if it is referred to the Security Council.
Diplomats close to the IAEA said inspectors would travel to Iran in the next several days to remove remaining seals and surveillance devices such as security cameras, except those required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory. That means IAEA inspections will be far more limited, and they will have to be scheduled well in advance.
Although the letter merely makes good on threats Iran has voiced for weeks, it represents the nation's official decision, in the wake of the monitoring agency's emergency meeting, to thwart the will of the international community.
The resolution reporting Iran requires the government to cooperate with the IAEA and reinstate the full suspension of uranium enrichment activities, which could provide fuel for civilian nuclear power as well as material for a nuclear weapon.
The IAEA oversees two nuclear inspection regimes: safeguards under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and an "additional protocol."
Under the safeguard rules, the agency keeps track of enriched uranium and plutonium. Countries that are treaty signatories must inform the agency whenever they are processing uranium or using the substance for electrical power plants or other purposes so that the material is strictly monitored.
It is possible to perfect the techniques to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes -- as Iran asserts it is doing -- secretly move toward a weapons program, then withdraw from the treaty and make bombs. That was the course North Korea took in 2002.
Concerned that the treaty did not provide sufficient protections, the agency drafted the additional protocol. If signed by a government, the measure gives the IAEA broad access to facilities connected with that country's nuclear program, including manufacturing plants where enrichment machinery is made. With knowledge of how far a nation's technology has progressed, weapons inspectors can assess how capable it is of making nuclear arms.
So far, 106 countries have ratified the additional protocol. Iran had not signed on but was complying voluntarily. With that cooperation ended, it will be more difficult to keep tabs on Tehran's nuclear activities.
"The agency will simply not have the same ability to provide the international community with information about Iran's preparations to manufacture nuclear material.... It becomes a black hole," said Norman Wulf, the former special representative of the president for nonproliferation at the State Department.
"What's of most concern to the United States and its European allies right now is Iran's nuclear capability," he added. "So the right to look at these [manufacturing] facilities is extremely important at this stage."
Diplomats noted that the limits on inspections also will make it more difficult for Iran to prove that its program is peaceful.