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THE WORLD : U.N. agency suspects Iran is lying : A report says satellite photos show a nuclear plant was underway five years earlier than Tehran claims it was.

November 17, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — The latest United Nations report on Iran's nuclear program questions Tehran's credibility regarding a recently disclosed facility built into a mountain near the holy city of Qom.

The International Atomic Energy Agency report issued Monday notes Iran's contention that it began work on the nuclear facility in 2007 in response to Bush administration threats of war as part of a plan to safeguard sensitive "organizations and activities" that could be targeted in an armed conflict.

But according to the agency's report, satellite photos showed construction began in 2002, well before Iran's nuclear program became a hot international issue. U.S. officials previously said they first detected the site in 2006.

The U.S. and other major powers worry that Iran's nuclear research program will ultimately produce weapons, an allegation Iran denies.

The discrepancy in dates is a significant measure of Iran's sincerity. Iran has long argued that because its parliament refused to ratify the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it doesn't have to disclose new sites to international inspectors until six months before introducing nuclear material to them, a point strenuously disputed by the West and departing IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei.

But from December 2003 to February 2006, Iran was adhering to the Additional Protocol, obliging it to declare new sites immediately.

The incongruous chronology and the inspection of the site, already fitted with wiring, pipes and other infrastructure, also prompted the agency to question Iran about the possible presence of other hidden nuclear facilities.

"Iran's declaration of the new facility . . . gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities in Iran which had not been declared to the agency," the report says. "Iran's explanation about the purpose of the facility and the chronology of its design and construction requires further clarification."

The U.N. watchdog's quarterly report also says that Iran's nuclear program is operating at less than half-capacity, inexplicably producing the same amount of enriched uranium as six months ago and perhaps less.

In addition, inspectors found 600 barrels of heavy water at a nuclear facility in Esfahan. The plutonium in the spent fuel of heavy-water nuclear reactors can be used for nuclear bombs. The IAEA asked Iran this month for information on the barrels' origin, since Iran's heavy-water production plant near Arak is apparently not operating.

Iran's envoy to the agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, dismissed the report as "routine" and "repetitive," according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the IAEA report "underscores that Iran still refuses to comply fully with its international nuclear obligations."

The revelation of the Qom facility in September raised concerns that Iran had built a parallel nuclear program beyond the sight of international inspectors. But Iran told the IAEA that "it did not have any other nuclear facilities that were currently under construction or in operation that had not yet been declared," the report says.

Iran has yet to definitively respond to a proposal to swap its enriched uranium for fuel rods to operate a medical research reactor, and world powers have begun buzzing about imposing new economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Russia's energy minister also announced Monday that its completion of a long-delayed nuclear power plant in the Iranian port city of Bushehr would be pushed back until after this year, according to the Interfax news agency.

Iranian officials say such delays only add to their misgivings about importing nuclear technology. Increasing pressure on Iran will backfire, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Monday.

"Iran is ready for nuclear cooperation with the West, and such cooperation will benefit the Westerners, because their opposition makes Iran more powerful and more advanced," he said, according to the website of the state broadcaster.

The U.N. report includes the first details from an Oct. 26-27 inspection of the previously hidden Fordow uranium-enrichment facility.

It recounts an Oct. 28 letter by Iran's Atomic Energy Organization that says "threats of military attacks against Iran" prompted it to build a network of "contingency centers for various organizations and activities."

The letter says this network, called the Passive Defense Organization, allocated the Fordow site to the Atomic Energy Organization in the latter half of 2007 "so that enrichment activities shall not be suspended in case of military attack" on Iran's Natanz enrichment facility.

However, the report says the facility, which Iran says will open in 2011, is being built to house only 3,000 centrifuges, which scientists say is enough to produce the enriched uranium for about one bomb a year. Natanz has a capacity of more than 50,000 centrifuges.

The report says international inspectors told Iranian officials they had obtained commercial satellite photos showing that work on the site began in 2002, stopped in 2004, and then resumed in 2006.

No explanation was offered for Iran's apparent slowing down of its nuclear program. Analysts have speculated that scientists are experiencing technical problems or are running out of uranium ore.

Nuclear physicist Ivan Oelrich said he suspected that Iran was easing its consumption of uranium ore as it waited for better centrifuges it had already designed to come on line.

"You don't go out to buy a new computer when you know a new model is coming out soon," said Oelrich, acting president for the Federation of American Scientists, a nonproliferation advocacy group in Washington.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Times special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.

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