United Nations inspectors have discovered traces of highly enriched uranium near an Iranian nuclear facility, heightening worries that the country may have a secret nuclear weapons program.
In a critical report released yesterday, the International Atomic Energy Agency says environmental samples taken near the Natanz nuclear fuel production plant in the south of Iran revealed "particles" of the sort of enriched uranium that could be used in the manufacture of a nuclear bomb.
The report states that based on the evidence it has seen so far, the IAEA is unable to confirm Iran's insistence that its nuclear program has no military uses. "There remain a number of important outstanding issues, particularly with regard to Iran's enrichment programme, that require urgent resolution," the report reads.
The IAEA said that while Iran had stepped up its co-operation in recent months, "information and access [in Iran] were at times slow in coming and incremental" and that "some of the information was in contrast to that previously provided by Iran."
The report also says that Iran had acknowledged for the first time that it had carried out uranium conversion experiments in the early 1990s. This could be interpreted as a breach of the IAEA's nuclear safeguards agreement.
"This IAEA report is much softer than the last one, but it is clear that Iran has been doing a lot of lying to the IAEA," said a Western diplomat who has read the report.
The United States, which brand-ed Iran part of an "axis of evil" with North Korea and the former regime in Iraq, has long accused Tehran of striving to build nuclear weapons and may ask the UN Security Council to get involved.
Last year, the U.S. State Department named the Natanz facility as one where it saw evidence that uranium enrichment, as well as the construction of a heavy-water plant, was taking place. Responding to yesterday's report, spokesman Philip Reeker said, "We have real concerns about this."
In February, IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei visited Natanz, a vast plant still under construction about 500 kilometres south of Tehran. He said he was surprised by its sophistication.
Commenting on the latest report, he said "this worries us greatly," according to an interview to be published later this week in the German newsmagazine Stern.
Iran did not challenge the report yesterday but said the equipment was already contaminated with the enriched uranium particles when it was purchased from abroad.
Its nuclear program has relied heavily on Russian support. Bowing to U.S. pressure, the Kremlin said recently it will demand Iran sign the additional IAEA protocols and will ensure that all spent nuclear fuel is returned to Russia.
In what seemed to be an acknowledgment of the heightened pressure it will come under between now and the next IAEA board meeting on Sept. 8, the Iranian government said yesterday that it is conditionally ready to sign on to an additional IAEA protocol that would allow snap inspections of its nuclear sites. It had previously resisted, saying unannounced visits by inspectors would be an infringement of its sovereignty.
Iran's representative to the IAEA in Vienna said some of those concerns remain. "Iran would like to clarify some aspects regarding the preservation of its sovereignty due to the so-called 'undeclared inspections' that are envisioned by the Additional Protocol," Ali Akbar Salehi said.
Even if Tehran drops its objections or some compromise is found, the actual signing of the additional protocol could still be months away, given the country's cumbersome legislative process.
The United States is expected to use the new report to push to have Iran declared in non-compliance with the safeguards agreement, a key addendum to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that Iran has signed.
While the United States is likely to sharpen the focus on Iran, Mr. ElBaradei has been calling for the White House to set an example.
"The U.S. government demands that other nations not possess nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, it is arming itself," he told Stern.
"In truth, there are no good or bad nuclear weapons. If we do not stop applying double standards we will end up with more nuclear weapons. We are at a turning point," Mr. ElBaradei said.
"Otherwise, we must live with the consequences. At the moment we are, at best, acting like the fire brigade. Today Iraq, tomorrow North Korea, the day after Iran. And then?"