Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Iran Moves Toward Enriching Uranium

The New York Times
September 22, 2004
Iran Moves Toward Enriching Uranium

PARIS, Sept. 21 - Iran defied the United Nations' nuclear agency on Tuesday, announcing that it had begun converting tons of uranium into gas, a crucial step in making fuel for a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency called Saturday for Iran to suspend all such activities.

Iran's statement, made in Vienna by the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, put the country on a collision course with the United States, which has lobbied vigorously for the international nuclear agency to refer Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council for past breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The announcement will only add weight to Washington's arguments.

On Saturday, the United Nations agency's 35-member board passed a resolution calling for Iran to halt all uranium-enrichment activities, but it declined to refer the matter to the Security Council.

The board meets again on Nov. 25. Should the United States prevail, the Council could decide to impose sanctions against Iran, issue a warning or take no action at all.

The nuclear agency's resolutions are not legally binding, and many countries, including Brazil and South Africa, may resist American pressure to sanction Iran for activities they support: the development of a complete nuclear fuel cycle, from mining uranium ore to reprocessing nuclear waste.

Mastering the cycle can make countries nearly independent in fulfilling their energy needs. But it brings them to within months of being able to build nuclear weapons.

Iran, as a signer of the nonproliferation treaty, has the right to convert uranium into a gas and to concentrate the fissile 235 isotope of that gas with high-speed centrifuges, a process called enrichment.

But it began an enrichment program without notifying the I.A.E.A. - a breach of its responsibilities under the treaty - and the agency has used the threat of Council intervention to press it to stop all of the steps leading to the production of enriched uranium.

Uranium with a relatively low concentration of the uranium-235 isotope can be used to fuel a nuclear reactor, but the process can easily be extended to produce the higher concentrations of the isotope necessary for a nuclear bomb.

The agency had expressed alarm at Iran's earlier announced plans to convert more than 40 short tons of uranium oxide, known as yellowcake, into uranium hexafluoride gas.

The resolution passed Saturday said the agency "considers it necessary" that in order for Iran to "promote confidence" - a veiled reference to the threat of a referral to the Security Council - it must "immediately suspend all enrichment-related activities," including the production of uranium hexafluoride gas at a plant built near Isfahan with Chinese technology and opened last year.

That plant is monitored by the international agency, but it declined to say Tuesday whether gas had been produced there since Saturday.

"Some of the amount of the 37 [metric] tons has been used," Mr. Aghazadeh was quoted as saying Tuesday by Reuters. Mr. Aghazadeh, one of Iran's vice presidents, was attending a general conference of the nuclear agency, which is based in Vienna. "The tests have been successful, but these tests have to be continued using the rest of the material," he said.

Though Iran calls the yellowcake a test amount, experts say the 40 short tons could produce enough fissile material for several weapons.

Iran argues that its uranium-enrichment program is intended to produce low-enriched uranium for use in a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant that it began constructing in the 1970's.

It has offered to accept any safeguards imposed by the agency to ensure its enrichment activities do not go beyond the 3.5 percent concentration of the uranium-235 isotope needed for its power plant and six others it plans to build.

But the United States and other countries say they believe the program is part of an effort to develop a capacity for nuclear weapons.

Some American analysts warn that there is only a year or so left to stop Iran from achieving nuclear self-sufficiency. After that, they say, 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, an I.A.E.A. member that has not signed the nonproliferation treaty and has nuclear weapons, may decide to take the matter into its own hands if diplomacy fails to deter Iran.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday that Israel was planning to buy 500 so-called bunker-busting bombs capable of penetrating six feet of concrete.

Those bombs could be used to destroy Iran's underground nuclear facilities. While analysts say such a pre-emptive strike is unlikely, in 1981 Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq to stop that country from developing nuclear weapons.

Iran argues that it is being unfairly penalized and that it has repeatedly proposed keeping the Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear agency is trying to force Iran to accept limits on what it can do under the nonproliferation treaty without causing Iran to withdraw from the treaty.

Iran argues that discrimination among signatories is prohibited under the treaty and that accepting any limits would set a dangerous precedent for other treaties it has signed.

On Sunday Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, warned in Tehran that Iran might drop out of the treaty if its case were sent to the Security Council. The treaty permits any country to withdraw on three months' notice. North Korea withdrew in 2001.

"We have made our choice: yes to peaceful nuclear technology and no to nuclear weapons," Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, said in Tehran on Tuesday at a military parade featuring the Shahab-3 missile, with a range that could reach Israel. Missiles at the parade were draped with banners that read "Crush America" and "Wipe Israel Off The Map," according to The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

"We will continue on this path even if it means cutting off international supervision," he said.