UNITED NATIONS -- Iran announced yesterday that it would resume nuclear fuel research next week, provoking concern from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency and nations, including the United States, that are convinced Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.
Iran delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency yesterday saying that its Atomic Energy Organization planned to resume research and development work on its "peaceful nuclear energy program" Monday, ending a two-year voluntary suspension of such activities.
In August, Iran restarted its work on converting raw uranium into gas, and yesterday's announcement was seen by some as an effort to raise the stakes before another round of talks with European diplomats scheduled for Jan. 18.
"It has all the makings of another crisis," said a Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations. "Step by step, they are moving towards their goal. When will the Europeans say enough is enough?"
The letter did not specify what kind of research activities would be restarted, leading IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei to ask Iran for clarification.
In September, the nuclear agency's board of governors passed a resolution warning Iran that resumption of activities involving reprocessing would open the door to punitive action. Enrichment of the gas from the raw uranium produces nuclear fuel that can be used in a civilian reactor or as material for a bomb.
A new book about the CIA reports that the U.S. intelligence agency intentionally handed Tehran top-secret bomb designs that could have helped the government reduce by years the time needed for design and research work for any effort to build weapons of mass destruction.
In an effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, the plans were laced with a hidden flaw that U.S. officials hoped would doom any weapon made from them, but the Iranians were tipped to the CIA's scheme and might have gleaned useful scientific information.
The clandestine effort was one of many alleged intelligence failures by the CIA during the Bush administration, according to the book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.
In the book, New York Times reporter James Risen noted many other alleged blunders, including intelligence gaffes that fueled the Bush administration's case for war against Saddam Hussein, spawned a culture of torture in the U.S. military and encouraged the rise of heroin cultivation and trafficking in Afghanistan.
Before it arrived in bookstores yesterday, the book and its author created a storm of controversy for revealing that President Bush authorized a top-secret effort by the National Security Agency, to eavesdrop on Americans without court-approved warrants.
In Iran, the deputy chief of the country's Atomic Energy Organization said yesterday that the renewed research would not immediately include enrichment of uranium. "That will be a separate issue on which no decision has been made," Mohammad Saeedi told Iranian state television.
Iranian officials asked the IAEA to remove seals and cameras this week from a nuclear plant at Natanz to allow nuclear work to resume. The nuclear watchdog installed them when Iran agreed to the suspension of research.
A resumption of work at Natanz might not be a technical violation, but Western diplomats who have been negotiating to keep Iran's nuclear program in check view it as provocative. U.S. and European diplomats reacted sharply to Tehran's statement.
At a routine briefing yesterday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the IAEA was seeking clarification on the Iranian announcement. He then warned that Iran could face punitive measures if any of its research activities are related to uranium enrichment.
For more than two years, the Bush administration has been trying to persuade its allies to refer the Iranian nuclear case to the Security Council, where Iran could face political and economic sanctions. Iran's announcement could bolster the U.S. case.
"Our view is that if Iran takes any further enrichment-related steps, the international community will have to consider additional measures to constrain Iran's nuclear ambitions," McCormack said. "Iran is trying to pursue nuclear weapons under the cover of a peaceful nuclear program."
A Washington-based diplomat from one of the European nations negotiating with Iran said enrichment-related research and development would violate Iran's commitment 14 months ago to suspend its nuclear activities while it tried to reach an agreement with the Europeans.
"We've always made clear that research and development isn't allowed," said the diplomat, who declined to be identified. "It is clearly not acceptable."
In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei urged Iran to hold to its earlier commitment to suspend "all enrichment and reprocessing activities."
Maggie Farley and Tyler Marshall write for the Los Angeles Times. Times reporter Josh Meyer contributed to this article.