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THE WORLD

Tehran evading nuclear queries, U.N. report says

September 16, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Iran failed to resolve lingering questions about alleged nuclear weapons research and modestly expanded its ability to produce sensitive radioactive material that could potentially be used for a bomb, says a report issued Monday by the U.N.'s atomic watchdog for its board of directors.

Still, Iran is less than a third the way to producing enough nuclear material for a single atomic weapon unless it drastically expands its program, nuclear experts have said.

The dryly worded six-page report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, contains few of the words of praise for Iran's cooperation with nuclear inspectors included in previous assessments, a sign of the agency's growing frustration at what its officials have privately called Tehran's intransigence.

"We would describe it as a gridlock," said a senior United Nations official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity. "Iran so far has not been forthcoming in replying to our questions. We seem to be at a dead end there."

The report also contains a surprise reference to evidence of "foreign expertise" assisting in Iran's past nuclear efforts. The senior U.N. official declined to disclose details about the nature of the help, but it said it came from outside the secret nuclear sales network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and that the danger of freelance nuclear guns for hire was "serious enough to pursue it with Iran."

The report will be taken up by the IAEA board of governors at a meeting in Vienna next week. It may provide ammunition for Western and Israeli officials seeking to impose a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium. However, some analysts predict it won't be enough to overcome the reluctance of Russia and China, which wield veto power on the council, to impose harsh measures against Iran any time soon.

"It was always going to be difficult to get another round of sanctions," said Peter Crail, a nonproliferation analyst at the Arms Control Assn., a Washington think tank. "And I don't think there's going to be nearly enough in this report to get them before next year."

Washington quickly praised the assessment, which covered Iran's nuclear activities since May. The U.S. envoy to the IAEA accused Iran of failing to come clean with inspectors and defying the international community.

"Iran's refusal to address [the questions] is particularly troubling as it continues . . . to develop the ability to produce fissile material that could be weaponized into a nuclear bomb," Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said in a statement.

Iranian officials brushed aside the report, saying they anticipated an escalation of international demands as a prelude to a possible deal.

"We know that the pressures increase when the issues are going to be resolved," Hassan Qashqavi, spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, told reporters Monday in Tehran, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said. "Therefore, we urge the agency to maintain its legal approach [and] disregard any foreign pressures."

The West and Tehran have been locked in the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions since a dissident group revealed undeclared features of the program six years ago. Iran insists it has complied with its international obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that its nuclear program is meant only for peaceful electricity generation and scientific research.

The U.S. and European powers strongly suspect that Iran is exploiting loopholes in international arms control regulations to build up a nuclear technology infrastructure that can be quickly retrofitted to build weapons.

The IAEA report takes Tehran to task for failing to resolve questions about the so-called alleged studies, a set of documents smuggled out of Iran that purport to show that up until 2003, the nation conducted nuclear experiments and considered bomb designs consistent with an illicit nuclear weapons program.

Iran says the documents are forgeries and has demanded to see original copies, which the IAEA says it cannot provide. Iranian officials also have said questions raised by the alleged studies have been resolved.

Until outstanding questions about Iran's nuclear program are answered, the U.N. demands that Tehran give up its right to produce enriched uranium, a material that, if highly concentrated, can be used as fuel for atomic weapons.

"It doesn't look like there is any further slowdown, not out of political considerations either," said a diplomat close to the IAEA, speaking on condition of anonymity.

--

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.

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