Friday, August 31, 2007

U.N. Says Jury Still Out on Iran Nuclear Program

The United Nations nuclear watchdog agency gave an upbeat assessment of Iranian cooperation with international inspectors in a new report Thursday that could make it more difficult for the United States to win tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran.

The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna also concluded that while Iran continues to enrich uranium in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, its fuel enrichment plant has produced "well below the expected quantity for a facility of this design." The quality of the uranium also was lower than expected, the IAEA said.

The report praised Iran for taking "a significant step forward" by agreeing to a new work plan and timelines for resolving numerous questions about the history of its nuclear program. Separately, U.N. officials said that Iran had slowed construction of a new plutonium-fuel reactor in Arak. ...

The report suggests that if Iran adheres to the program and timelines, the agency could resolve its remaining questions about the nature of the country's nuclear program by the end of the year and close the file.

"For the first time in a couple of years, we have been able to agree with the Iranians on a working arrangement, on how to resolve the outstanding issues," the U.N. agency's deputy director, Olli Heinonen, told reporters in Vienna. "What Iran is now facing is actually a litmus test" on whether it will deliver what it has promised, because its failure to do so in the past triggered Security Council action, Heinonen said.

If the IAEA concludes that Iran has not engaged in a covert program to develop nuclear weapons, it could raise new questions about the quality of U.S. intelligence in the Middle East. ...

Longtime observers of Iran's program were struck by the report's revelations of slow progress of uranium enrichment. Iran appears to be running well behind its own self-imposed schedule for building new centrifuge machines, and its existing machines are operating well below capacity.

Based on IAEA figures, Iran is producing low-enriched uranium at a rate of about 31 pounds a month, compared with an expected rate of nearly 200 pounds a month, according to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based research group.

The low output suggests that Iran is either experiencing technical difficulties or has perhaps decided to slow production to "forestall negative reactions that would lend support for further sanctions," the institute said in a report released Thursday. Low-enriched uranium is used for making nuclear power and cannot be converted for weapons use unless it undergoes further processing. ...

The report "indicates that Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, which is a violation of U.S. Security Council resolutions." Such a step is necessary "for the international community to gain confidence that Iran's nuclear activities are exclusively for peaceful purposes."

France said that it would continue pursuing sanctions as long as Iran continued enriching uranium, and a statement by the British Foreign Office said that it also lacked confidence in Iran's nuclear intentions. ...

The report cites several contentious issues that have been resolved recently through a renewed dialogue with Iran and the work program that Iranian and U.N. officials agreed to in a series of meetings in July and August.

"This is the first time Iran is ready to discuss all the outstanding issues which triggered the crisis in confidence," Mohamed ElBaradei, the I.A.E.A. director general, said in an interview. "It's a significant step."

But the Bush administration and its allies, which have won sanctions in the United Nations Security Council in an effort to stop Iran's uranium enrichment, saw the latest report as more evidence of defiance, not cooperation.

"There is no partial credit here," a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said Thursday. "Iran has refused to comply with its international obligations, and as a result of that the international community is going to continue to ratchet up the pressure." ...

Dr. ElBaradei suggested that he would welcome a delay in the American-led strategy to impose new sanctions, saying, "I'm clear at this stage you need to give Iran a chance to prove its stated goodwill. Sanctions alone, I know for sure, are not going to lead to a durable solution."

The agreement, announced Monday, laid out a timetable of cooperation with the goal of wrapping up by December nuclear issues that have been under investigation for four years. By then, Dr. ElBaradei said, the agency will know whether Iran was "serious" or "was trying to take us for a ride."


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