VIENNA, Feb. 16 -- Despite a lack of fresh leads, U.N. inspectors continue to probe how Iran's nuclear program obtained equipment, material and know-how from abroad, questions that raise suspicions in Washington and Europe, diplomats with detailed knowledge of the investigation said Wednesday.
None of these lines of inquiry addresses whether Iran is currently working on nuclear weapons. Rather, diplomats say, the International Atomic Energy Agency hopes to obtain greater insight into the international black market that supplied Iran and get a more definitive account of the country's past programs.
Under arrangements still being worked out, Pakistan has agreed to lend the IAEA equipment from its nuclear weapons program that could help clear up one of the largest mysteries surrounding the two-year investigation of Iran -- why certain equipment in Iran has been found to contain traces of enriched uranium.
Western governments have suggested that the uranium's presence could indicate that Iran was manufacturing a key ingredient for nuclear weapons. But Iranian officials are hoping that test results will show that equipment it bought from Pakistan years ago arrived contaminated with the uranium from that country's nuclear program.
Iran denies that it intends to make bomb-grade uranium and says its enrichment programs are designed for producing nuclear energy.
CIA Director Porter J. Goss, reporting to Congress on Wednesday on global threats, said the Iranian energy program could be diverted for weapons development. "We are more concerned about the dual-use nature of the technology," Goss said.
Intelligence agencies are conducting a review of their assessments of Iran's nuclear program. A similar assessment before the Iraq war became a centerpiece of the Bush administration's claims that Iraq was advancing in its nuclear weapons program. But that intelligence, which the IAEA challenged before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, turned out to be wrong.
[In a sign of continuing concern over Iran's nuclear program, oil prices spiked Wednesday after an explosion was reported in southern Iran near the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Associated Press reported. State-run media offered conflicting explanations, including blasting for dam construction, a fuel tank dropping from an Iranian plane and friendly fire.]
In a two-year investigation, the U.N. agency uncovered an 18-year-old nuclear program that the Iranians began in secret and in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The discovery helped unravel a nuclear black-market operated by Pakistan's former chief nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who sold Iran spare parts from his weapons program.
The agency is looking into other dual-use equipment that Iran purchased for a facility in Lavasan. It is also studying experiments that Iran conducted with nuclear designs obtained from Pakistan years ago. Inspectors are awaiting results from soil samples taken at an Iranian military facility last month, but diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, expressed doubt that the results would yield any breakthroughs.
The diplomats would discuss details of the sensitive investigation only on condition of anonymity.
The IAEA's director, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in an interview Tuesday that six months have passed since the IAEA obtained any new information on Iran and that the agency hasn't found evidence to substantiate claims that Tehran is working on a weapons program, as the Bush administration has alleged.
The IAEA board is to meet in Vienna in two weeks to discuss the latest developments on the Iran case.
For the first time in two years, ElBaradei will not present a written report to his board on Iran's programs and is instead preparing a brief statement on grounds of lack of new information.
One diplomat said ElBaradei's briefing will focus on Iran's suspension of nuclear-related work and its cooperation with inspectors, which ElBaradei has described as good, as well as the status of the agency's investigation. One of his deputies, Pierre Goldschmidt, will follow his presentation with a separate briefing on technical issues.
Goldschmidt will likely discuss two recent issues that inspectors have had with Iran, including a tunnel that the Iranians are building at a nuclear site in Isfahan to store nuclear materials in case of an attack. The construction was first noticed by inspectors on satellite photos, and the Iranians then provided diagrams of the site.
Inspectors do not consider the site to be relevant to the weapons investigations due to its defensive nature.
Iran has also conducted maintenance work on some centrifuge components that the agency deems "nonsensitive" items and has conducted quality-control tests on other equipment. Neither of those activities violates a recent deal that Iran reached with three European countries to suspend certain nuclear-related operations while talks on a long-term halt continue. But the IAEA asked that the activities stop, and Iran complied, diplomats said.
The briefings will also report that Iran has completed converting 37 tons of raw uranium into a solid state that makes it easier to be enriched. The conversion was allowed under the Iran-Europe deal and has been carried out under IAEA supervision.
The agency is monitoring the rest of Iran's known nuclear-related sites and equipment, in most cases with 24-hour surveillance cameras.