Iran presses ahead on nuclear fuel

Posted in Iran | 22-Sep-04 | Author: Craig Smith| Source: The New York Times

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami asserted that Tehran would not give up its plan to enrich uranium, despite international pressure for it to abandon the sensitive nuclear activity.
Tehran, on a collision course with U.S., defies UN demand to suspend program

PARIS Iran defied the United Nations on Tuesday by announcing that it had begun converting tons of uranium into the gas needed to turn the radioactive element into nuclear fuel. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency had called Saturday for the country to suspend all such activities.

Iran's statement, made to reporters in Vienna by Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, put the country on a collision course with the United States, which has lobbied vigorously for the International Atomic Energy Agency to send Iran before the United Nations Security Council for its past breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Some of the amount of the 37 tons has been used," Reuters quoted Aghazadeh as saying, in reference to a quantity of yellowcake, or uranium oxide, that Iran had earlier indicated that it planned to convert into gas. "The tests have been successful, but these test have to be continued using the rest of the material."

Aghazadeh, one of Iran's vice presidents, is attending a general conference of the Vienna-based atomic energy agency.

Washington is certain to use any failure by Iran to abide by the agency's latest requests, made in a resolution passed by its 35-nation board of governors Saturday, to push for Security Council referral when the board meets again on Nov. 25.

While Iran, as a signatory of the treaty, has the right to convert uranium into a gas and to concentrate the fissile 235 isotope in that gas with high-speed centrifuges, a process called enrichment, the UN agency has used the threat of Security Council intervention for the country's past failings to pressure it to voluntarily end all steps leading to the production of enriched uranium.

Uranium with a high enough concentration of the uranium-235 isotope can be used to fuel a nuclear reactor, but the enrichment process can easily be extended to produce higher concentrations of the isotope that are necessary to make a nuclear bomb.

Though Iran calls the 37 metric tons, or more than 40 tons, a test amount, experts say that amount can produce enough gas for enrichment into fissile material for several nuclear bombs.

Iran argues that its uranium enrichment program is intended to produce low-enriched uranium for use in a nuclear power plant that it began constructing in the 1970s. But the United States and other countries believe the program is part of an effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran has offered to accept any safeguards imposed by the UN agency to ensure that its enrichment activities do not exceed the 3.5 percent concentration of the uranium-235 isotope needed for its power plant.

But some American analysts warn that the international community has only a year or so left to stop the Iranian program from achieving self-sufficiency.

After that, they warn, the country will have the means to create a nuclear arsenal without outside help, forever altering the Middle East balance of power.

One concern is that Israel, a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is presumed to have nuclear weapons, may decide to take the matter into its own hands if diplomacy fails to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported Tuesday that the country was planning to buy 500 "bunker busting" bombs from the United States. Those bombs could be used to destroy Iran's underground nuclear facilities. In 1981, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in an attempt to stop that country from developing nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is trying to force Iran to voluntarily accept limits to what it can do under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, without triggering an Iranian withdrawal from the treaty.

The resolution Saturday said the agency "considers it necessary" that in order for Iran to "promote confidence" - a veiled reference to the threat of Security Council referral - it must "immediately suspend all enrichment-related activities," including the production of uranium hexafluoride gas at the country's uranium conversion facility.

The agency monitors that facility, but it declined Tuesday to say whether gas had been produced there since Saturday.

While the resolution is not legally binding, any failure by Iran to abide by the agency's requests would give the United States ammunition in its campaign to send the country's past breaches of the treaty to the Security Council. Iran breached its obligations under the treaty by developing uranium enrichment technology without notifying the agency.

Iran, however, says it is reluctant to accept the limitations set by the resolution, arguing that such discrimination against signatories is specifically prohibited under the treaty and that accepting any limits would set a dangerous precedent for other treaties that the country has signed.

On Sunday, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, warned in Tehran that the country might drop out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if its case was sent to the Security Council.

A clause in the treaty permits any country to withdraw on three months' notice.

North Korea withdrew in 2001, allowing it to proceed with the separation of plutonium from spent uranium and presumably with the development of a nuclear bomb.

"We are determined to obtain peaceful atomic technology even if it causes a halt to international supervision," President Mohammad Khatami said in Tehran on Tuesday.

He reiterated the country's claim that it has no interest in developing nuclear weapons and that it wants nuclear capability only for peaceful purposes, such as power generation. The country is nearing completion of its 1,000 megawatt light-water nuclear reactor and plans to build seven more.