Iran resumes atom enrichment work: diplomats
Reuters | February 13 2006
By Mark Heinrich
Iran has resumed some uranium enrichment work, a first step toward making fuel for atomic reactors or bombs, in defiance of a vote reporting Tehran to the U.N. Security Council, diplomatic sources said on Monday.
Iran had said it would restart enrichment, shelved for two years under Western pressure, by early March but gave no date.
Tehran also announced talks due this week on a Russian proposal to avert a showdown in the Security Council had been postponed. However, Moscow said it was prepared to go ahead with the talks on Thursday as planned.
An official in the Iranian capital would only say that "Iran was supposed to resume uranium enrichment on Sunday or Monday", without confirming whether the process had started.
If confirmed, Iran's bold moves signaled it would try to overcome any action to rein in its nuclear program after the February 4 decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to involve the Security Council, which could consider sanctions.
Iran retaliated for the IAEA vote by halting short-notice inspections by agency personnel, a key tool in investigations to assess whether Iran's nuclear program was wholly peaceful or not, and vowing to resume uranium enrichment.
The West fears that the Islamic Republic, which hid enrichment work and nuclear black-market purchases from the IAEA for almost 20 years and frequently calls for Israel's destruction, is secretly trying to build atomic bombs.
Tehran denies this, saying it seeks only atomic energy for an expanding economy. Its leaders suggest they are confident Western efforts to clip its nuclear wings will run out of steam because of international dependence on Iranian oil exports.
"We heard from reliable sources that enrichment work resumed last night at Natanz," said one Vienna-based diplomat.
He was referring to a pilot fuel-purification plant where Iran began renovating mothballed equipment last month, prompting the European Union to sponsor a resolution at the IAEA to notify the Security Council after diplomacy with Tehran broke down.
"The (February 4) board decision clearly called on Iran to re-establish full suspension of all enrichment-related activity. Unfortunately Iran seems to be ignoring these calls by the international community," said a senior Western diplomat.
The enrichment process involves feeding uranium UF6 gas into cascades of centrifuges, machines that purify the material by spinning at supersonic speeds.
If purified to levels of about 5 percent, uranium can fuel nuclear reactors. If enriched to about 90 percent, a longer and more difficult process, it would be capable of triggering the chain reaction for nuclear explosions.
Diplomats could give no more detail for the time being.
Greenpeace nuclear analyst William Peden said Iranian efforts to purify uranium at this stage would involve only testing of a few centrifuges, a long way away from the hundreds needed to produce fuel for atomic warheads.
Diplomats and nuclear experts have estimated Iran would need between two and more than 10 years to perfect technology needed to create a nuclear arsenal, if it indeed wants one.
In Tehran earlier, government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said this week's talks with Russia to discuss proposals to process nuclear fuel for Iranian reactors on Russian soil had been postponed.
The proposal was put forward by Moscow to ease international concerns that enrichment via a joint venture inside Iran would not prevent possible diversions into a shadowy weapons project.
"Talks with Russia have not been canceled, but the date should be discussed," Elham told a weekly news conference.
He said the proposal was acceptable only if it was in addition to enrichment facilities in Iran. "The government insists on enriching uranium on Iran's soil and the proposal should be adjusted based on the new circumstances."
Russia's RIA news agency quoted Foreign ministry spokesman Alexei Sazonov as saying: "We have not received from our Iranian partners any notification of talks planned for February 16 being postponed for some reason."
He said it was "premature" to talk about their cancellation or postponement.
Earlier, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak was quoted as saying: "Our proposal to meet on February 16 still stands."
Iran says it wants to enrich low-grade uranium only for use in nuclear power reactors and that, as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has a right to do so.
Elham repeated Iran's demand that Western countries recognize Iran's right to nuclear technology under the NPT. "But if our right was not recognized, there will be no reason to remain committed to international treaties," he said.
(Additional reporting by Alireza Ronaghi in Tehran)
Last modified February 13, 2006