VIENNA - Iran seems to have at least temporarily
halted the uranium-enrichment program at the heart of its standoff with the U.N.
Security Council, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said
The pause could represent an attempt to de-escalate Iran's conflict with the
Security Council, which is deliberating a new set of harsher sanctions on the
Iran has enriched small quantities of uranium to the low level suitable for
nuclear fuel generation. The U.S. and its allies fear that Iran could build
nuclear weapons with larger amounts of more highly enriched uranium.
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been expected to announce last
month that Iran had started installing 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges at a
facility in the desert outside the central city of Natanz, where it has about
500 centrifuges above and below ground. But the announcement never materialized,
an apparent step back that IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei appeared to confirm
"I do not believe that the number of centrifuges has increased, nor do I
believe that (new) nuclear material has been introduced to the centrifuges at
Natanz," he said.
ElBaradei, whose agency has spent more than four years probing Tehran's
nuclear activities, warned that, despite the new bit of positive news, lack of
Iranian cooperation left the IAEA unable to establish that Tehran's nuclear
activities were purely peaceful.
Unless Tehran takes "the long overdue decision" to cooperate with the IAEA,
it "will have no option but to reserve its judgment about Iran's nuclear
program," he told reporters.
And a senior Iranian official dashed hopes that any short-term pause could
translate into Tehran accepting a U.N. Security Council demand to freeze its
enrichment activities. Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's chief IAEA delegate, said
his country would "never give up its inalienable right" to enrich uranium, a
refrain repeated almost daily by Iranian representatives in the standoff.
Diplomats familiar with the agency's Iran file said Tehran continues to
refuse IAEA requests to install cameras that would give agency monitors a full
view of its underground hall at Natanz, which Iran says will ultimately house
54,000 enriching centrifuges - enough to produce dozens of nuclear weapons
Iran has produced and stored 250 tons of the gas used as the feedstock for
enrichment. That would be enough to produce more than 40 nuclear bombs.
Lack of full remote monitoring means the agency cannot keep tabs on all
activities at the bunker, said one diplomat, who demanded anonymity because he
was not allowed to discuss the issue. Iran continues to assemble individual
centrifuges without connecting them into the cascade needed to enrich uranium in
the hall, he said.
Up for review as early as Tuesday will be a Feb. 22 report from ElBaradei
finding that Tehran has set up hundreds of centrifuges.
The board was expected to approve last month's decision by ElBaradei to
suspend nearly half the technical aid his agency provides to Iran. Only North
Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq have faced such punishment in the past.
The United States, its key allies and most European nations have in the past
been opposed by nonaligned board members who were against harsh punishment.
But the diplomats said that even nations normally backing Tehran -
including key U.S. critics such as Cuba and Venezuela - would likely agree
to the suspensions because they were backed by the U.N. Security Council.
The European Union, in a statement made available in advance to The
Associated Press, said it backed the suspensions, saying it "supports the (IAEA)
... views" on the 18 projects that could be suspended.
The board will also be reviewing North Korea's apparent willingness to
ultimately dismantle its nuclear arms-making capabilities.
ElBaradei plans to go to Pyongyang on March 13 as part of the six-nation
agreement under which North Korea agreed to allow a return of his agency's
experts after more than four years under its commitment to eventually scrap its
nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and security assurances.