Iran speeds efforts to enrich uranium

VIENNA — VIENNA -- Iran has accelerated its program to enrich uranium and defied a U.N. Security Council deadline to suspend nuclear activities before Tehran is capable of producing fuel for nuclear weapons, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said here yesterday.

The report by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed that Iran recently began installing the first of 3,000 gas centrifuges in a heavily fortified, underground chamber at Natanz and that it plans to "bring them gradually into operation by May 2007."


A facility that large, if it functions properly, could produce enough highly enriched uranium in a year to build a nuclear warhead. A senior U.N. diplomat here cautioned that the Iranian schedule is "fairly optimistic" and said that the highly sensitive centrifuge cascades might not be operational before the fall.

The six-page report is almost certain to trigger moves by the Bush administration and its European allies for stiffer U.N. sanctions against the hard-line Iranian regime. The escalating crisis now moves to London, where major powers will meet on Monday to consider a range of actions against Iran.


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Berlin, said the United States was determined to "use all available channels, and the Security Council" to draft a new resolution aimed at halting Tehran's nuclear activity.

The report "shows that Iran has not changed its behavior, has not changed its views, and is continuing on the path of defiance," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington.

But Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters at the United Nations that sanctions are not a solution. "We should not lose sight of the goal, and the goal is not to have a resolution or to impose sanctions," Churkin said. "The goal is to accomplish a political outcome of this problem."

The Security Council voted unanimously Dec. 23 to give Iran 60 days to close an above-ground test facility at Natanz, where it had begun small-scale uranium enrichment in August. The resolution also required Iran to suspend work at an underground facility at Natanz, halt construction of a nuclear reactor at Arak and freeze other worrisome nuclear activities.

'No progress'

ElBaradei's report indicated that the Iranians instead pushed the program into higher gear. The senior U.N. official described the report as showing "no progress" in resolving the IAEA's major outstanding concerns.

"There is limited cooperation," he said. "In my view, it's fairly limited."

Iran insists it will produce uranium enriched only to the lower levels suitable for use in civilian reactors, but the international community fears an industrial-sized enrichment effort could be converted to produce weapons-grade material.


Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, showed no signs of compromise, however. Iran "will not withdraw from its nuclear stances even for one single step," he said in the provincial town of Talesh, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Iranian officials have told the IAEA they ultimately hope to install 54,000 centrifuges, a facility potentially large enough to provide fissile material for 20 bombs a year. Other stages still would be necessary to cast the uranium and pack it into a successful explosive device.

IAEA inspection teams have visited Iran regularly since early 2003, returning every two weeks on average, and have installed cameras in a few locations at Natanz.

Cameras resisted

But Iranian officials have rebuffed IAEA requests to install more sophisticated cameras inside the subterranean centrifuge hall that can stream nonstop pictures back to Vienna, to ensure no nuclear material is diverted. As an alternative, the IAEA seeks to launch unannounced inspections at any time at the facility, which Iran does not permit.

Officials in Tehran also failed to fully explain the source of particles of highly enriched uranium that had been detected on equipment at Natanz and at a separate physics research center, the report said. Iranian officials also refused to let them interview the former head of the research center.


IAEA inspectors visited Iran earlier this week and plan to return on March 3.

Iran has steadily pushed forward on its nuclear program since the 20-year secret effort was first publicly revealed in August 2002. But the recent work to install 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz has stoked concerns that Iran may near a so-called "breakout" point for a nuclear weapon in a matter of months.

Bob Drogin writes for the Los Angeles Times.