U.N. agency to halt support for Iran's nuclear projects

TEHRAN, Iran -- The U.N. nuclear agency signaled yesterday that it is preparing to cancel technical aid on nearly half its nuclear cooperation projects with Iran, a significant step toward implementing sanctions aimed at halting the nation's uranium enrichment program.

In a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors in Vienna, the agency leadership recommended halting all assistance on projects that could contribute to enrichment and reprocessing work prohibited under the sanctions resolution adopted by the U.N. Security Council in December.


The cuts, expected to be approved by the agency's board of governors in March, slice all technical aid for "safe and reliable nuclear power generation," for strategic planning and also for a nuclear technology center under development. They leave intact assistance for medicine development, radioactive waste disposal, wastewater treatment and agriculture.

They do not affect the agency's assistance on preparation to operate the civilian nuclear power reactor under construction at Bushehr, which is exempted from the U.N. resolution.


"No technical assistance can be provided to Iran that relates to the proliferation [of] sensitive nuclear activities specified in the resolution. Technical assistance, however, can be provided to Iran when after a case-by-case screening it is found to be in conformity with the provisions of the resolution," said the report, prepared by IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei.

In Vienna, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was critical of the decision.

"Our cooperation with the IAEA was in agriculture, medicine and peaceful affairs. So why was this halt imposed to our peaceful cooperation, as well?" he told the Islamic Republic News Agency. He said the "technical and legal paradox" in the Security Council resolution "has prompted the IAEA to take this decision."

In all, the agency proposes to withdraw cooperation on up to four of 15 national projects and as many as 14 out of 34 regional projects, though a small number of these may be permitted after a case-by-case review.

Analysts said the IAEA action will likely not have a significant effect on Iran's nuclear program but will still likely be perceived as a blow. Iran is one of the largest recipients of U.N. nuclear technical cooperation in the world.

"Iran will complain and say none of these projects are for enrichment or reprocessing, the sensitive technologies that were singled out in the resolution. But the agency is being careful to follow the letter of the Security Council resolution," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear specialist with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

He said Iran, apparently caught by surprise by the Security Council's unanimous vote in favor of the sanctions resolution in December, has subsequently sought to play down its potential impact.

"They've been saying it wouldn't amount to anything. Well, here we have an indication that the IAEA says it does amount to something. Here's some projects that have to be stopped," he said. "It will contribute to the psychological discomfort of Iran."


Iran, which insists that its nuclear program is intended to develop nuclear energy, not weapons, is hoping to avoid a second, escalated round of sanctions, and analysts say it might look favorably on ElBaradei's proposal for a three-month "time out" on uranium enrichment in exchange for a similar suspension of sanctions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is supposed to make an announcement on the nuclear program during planned street demonstrations tomorrow in celebration of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Analysts think he will announce some progress in setting up the first of 3,000 enrichment centrifuges Iran has said it is building at a major new underground facility in Natanz.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.