Iranians Reopen Nuclear Centers
WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 - Iran broke open internationally monitored seals on at least three of its nuclear facilities on Tuesday, clearing the way for uranium enrichment activities that Europeans and Americans say are a crucial step toward making a nuclear weapon.
The Iranians said the step was only for research on enriching uranium, and outside experts said Iran was still years away from producing enough fuel for a bomb.
But the United States and its European allies condemned the action and stepped up a campaign to persuade the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, perhaps by the end of the month.
It was unclear whether Russia and China would support a move toward sanctions, even though both called on Iran as recently as this weekend not to resume enrichment. A European diplomat acknowledged that there was still an "obvious reluctance" by the two countries to "gang up on the Iranians."
A senior administration official noted, however, that a Foreign Ministry statement in Moscow declared Tuesday that Russia was "deeply disappointed by Iran's declared decision" and recalled that a Russian envoy had "insistently advised them not to take this step" in a visit to Tehran last weekend.
"For the Russians, this is an angry statement," said the administration official, who did not want to be identified while discussing tactics or strategy, as opposed to settled policy. The official added that American officials would confer with the other Europeans and the Russians in the next few days before deciding what action to take against Iran.
"We view this as a serious escalation on the part of Iran on the nuclear issue," said Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman. "What you see here is the international community coming out and sending a very clear message to Iran that their behavior is unacceptable."
German, French and British officials joined in assailing the Iranian action. Over the last year, the three nations persuaded the Bush administration to go along with their effort to negotiate with Iran to keep a freeze on activities that Iran says are peaceful but that many Western experts believe are part of a covert weapons program.
The negotiations involved European offers of economic incentives, including the sale of aircraft parts and talks leading to trade preferences. But Iran's action appears to have derailed any such discussions for now.
"The Iranians have behaved so remarkably badly, it's hard to believe that the international community will do anything other than put them in front of the ultimate court of international public opinion," a European diplomat said, referring to the Security Council. "That is where the Iranians are heading." The official did not want to be identified by name or country to preserve a united front with his European colleagues.
President Jacques Chirac of France criticized Iran's action as a grave error, and the new German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Iran was sending "very, very disastrous signals."
In Tehran, Iranian officials were quoted as saying the actions they were taking involved research activities permitted by the Nonproliferation Treaty, which allows signers to have peaceful nuclear programs as long as they agree to monitoring and do not do anything that could make weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has not charged that Iran is making a bomb, but Iran has concealed its activities from inspectors in a way that has aroused suspicions.
Iran voluntarily suspended some of those activities more than a year ago in an agreement with the three European nations in Paris. Last year, however, it proceeded with the conversion of raw uranium, or yellow cake, into a gas known as uranium hexaflouride, also called UF6.
On Tuesday, the seals placed by the International Atomic Energy Agency were removed at Natanz, Iran, where centrifuges for enrichment of uranium to a higher grade are stored. Iranian officials also removed seals at two related storage and testing locations known as Pars Trash, near Isfahan, and Farayand Technique. The international agency said the seals had covered centrifuge components, manufacturing equipment and two cylinders containing uranium hexaflouride.
Western diplomats said Iran appeared ready to enrich uranium with 164 or more centrifuges, the minimum amount they said was needed for combined use in a "cascade" that could produce highly enriched fuel. The centrifuges spin the gas into a concentrated form that can be used for fuel or weapons.
But other nuclear experts say enriching uranium in centrifuges is an extremely complex undertaking requiring thousands of centrifuges to make enough material for a nuclear bomb. A small "cascade" could help teach the Iranians how to get to that larger goal, some experts say.
While proclaiming its right to enrich uranium as part of its nuclear energy program, Iran has maintained that all its actions are intended for research and not for producing nuclear fuel, even for its energy-related reactors.
"We make a difference between research on nuclear fuel technology and production of nuclear fuel," Muhammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's atomic energy organization, was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
Last year, the West warned Iran not to convert raw uranium into uranium hexaflouride gas. But when Iran proceeded to do so, the West took no punitive action, instead drawing a new "red line" saying it would invite retaliation if it took the gas and enriched it in centrifuges.
"There's no question that Iran has miscalculated here," the administration official said. "They may have thought that since there have been long and protracted negotiation for two years, there would not be any credible reaction. But this is a big step across a big, bright red line."
American officials also said Iran had insulted Mohamed ElBaradei, the chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, by removing the seals itself and not waiting for the agency to do it.
Dr. ElBaradei, who has cautiously said there was no evidence of an Iranian weapons program, has also continually called for Iran to disclose all its activities. On Tuesday, he expressed "serious concern" about Iran's action, which he said added to the problem of its "less than full and prompt transparency" in nuclear areas, an agency statement said.
Dr. ElBaradei called on Iran to return to its suspension of activities and to resume its dialogue "with all concerned parties," the agency said.
Two years ago, when the European nations sought to avert a confrontation between Iran and the West by offering incentives for Iran to abandon its nuclear program, many Bush administration officials were openly disdainful of the European effort.
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice changed course and with President Bush in Europe enthusiastically endorsed the diplomatic efforts. This fall, Mr. Bush also endorsed a separate Russian offer to join with Iran in a Russian-Iranian uranium enrichment facility on Russian soil as an alternative to an Iranian program.
A top Russian envoy, Sergei Kisliak, went to Tehran last weekend to try to promote that offer. But Iran's actions have now served as an apparent rebuff to Russia.
A recurrent concern of the Bush administration relates to North Korea, which was referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions because of its nuclear weapons program. The Security Council has not acted, however. American diplomats say they believe that this time, with Russian and Chinese help, there can be a different result.
Steven R. Weisman reported from Washington for this article, and Nazila Fathi from Tehran.