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Iran step could boost ability to enrich uranium, diplomats say

The Western envoys say Iran has more machines producing medical reactor-grade uranium. The disclosure increases pressure on those seeking a resolution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

May 14, 2010|By Julia Damianova and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Vienna and Beirut — Iran has expanded the number of machines producing medical reactor-grade uranium, an incremental step that could increase its ability to produce the highly refined material necessary to build a nuclear bomb, said two diplomats in Vienna, home of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency.

The disclosure, first revealed by news agencies Friday, ups pressure on diplomats struggling to find a resolution of the confrontation between Tehran and the United States, Israel and their European allies over the nuclear program.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva arrives in Tehran this weekend at the head of a large delegation for a summit of developing nations. Analysts say Lula hopes to broker a deal with Iran to avoid a rancorous U.N. Security Council debate over sanctions against the Islamic Republic and to bolster Brazil's diplomatic profile.

The U.S., France and Britain, permanent members of the Security Council, are pushing for tough sanctions. However, they face stiff resistance from Russia and China, which hold veto power, along with non-permanent members such as Turkey and Brazil.

Veterans of the years-long diplomatic struggle are skeptical about a possible deal.

Yukiya Amano, director-general of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, said Friday in an interview with Bloomberg News that he saw no indication Tehran was moving toward compromise. "A change of policy is needed in Iran," he said.

Until several months ago, Iran only produced reactor-grade uranium enriched to levels below 5%. But once an IAEA proposal to swap some of Tehran's stockpile for the 20% enriched material needed to power an ailing Tehran medical reactor faltered, Iran began producing its own fuel for the plant.

The Vienna-based diplomats speaking about Iran's newly installed centrifuges serve as envoys of Western countries hostile to Tehran's nuclear program. The envoys said they did not know yet whether a second machine installed next to the unit already producing 20% enriched uranium was being fed with uranium or sitting idle. Theoretically, a second machine would make the production of the higher-enriched uranium faster and more efficient.

The IAEA has declined to comment on the diplomats' disclosure. It has demanded that Iran improve surveillance measures in the facility, located near the central town of Natanz. One of the diplomats said Iran had yet to act on the request.

daragahi@latimes.com

Damianova is a special correspondent.

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