Despite promises to freeze its nuclear programs, Iran has continued to convert uranium for enrichment, diplomats in Washington and Vienna said yesterday, a situation that they said signals potential trouble for a new and still untested agreement between the Islamic republic and European countries.
Earlier this week Tehran agreed to freeze its nuclear programs in exchange for guarantees that it would not face the prospect of U.N. sanctions while it continued to negotiate with diplomats from Britain, France and Germany. That deal was to take effect Monday, so while Iran's conversion work does not technically violate its terms or international law, it sparked concern among the Europeans that Iran was going to look for loopholes to continue its nuclear programs.
The Post's Glenn Kessler discusses the nuclear threat in Iran.
"This is really a shot in the eye," one European diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting the deal more.
To help sell the deal to a skeptical Bush administration, Britain, France and Germany drafted a U.N. resolution making it clear that any Iranian attempt to pursue nuclear materials during the negotiations would result in immediate referral to the Security Council, according to diplomats who have seen the draft.
The unambiguous language in the two-page resolution was shared with Bush administration officials yesterday; a final version is to be presented at the International Atomic Energy Agency's board meeting on Iran next week in Vienna.
Diplomats here and in the Austrian capital confirmed yesterday that Iran has continued to convert raw uranium to hexafluoride gas, known as UF6, the end stage for the uranium before it can be enriched.
"The Iranians are trying to get as much work in before the suspension takes effect because they know most countries want the freeze to be permanent," a Western diplomat said.
The IAEA expects all of Iran's programs to come to a halt on Monday, in accordance with the European deal. It will then attempt to verify the freeze and report its findings to the agency's board three days later.
Iran, rich in oil and gas, insists its work is geared toward the development of a nuclear energy source. But the scale of its programs and the years of secret work Iran conducted have fueled suspicion that it has a covert weapons program.
U.S. officials have said little publicly about the Euro-Iranian deal, though privately many in the Bush administration are skeptical that it will last more than a few weeks.
State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Wednesday that the United States was "agnostic" about the agreement and has noted that a previous deal among the four countries fell apart in June.
Diplomats for the three European allies have said they are not convinced the deal will hold either but are willing to give direct negotiations a chance.
But the deal has been rocked almost daily by fresh accusations and information since it was accepted on Sunday.
During a conversation about Iran with reporters accompanying him on a trip to Chile on Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he had "seen some information that would suggest that they have been actively working on delivery systems."
He continued: "I'm not talking about uranium or fissile material or the warhead, I'm talking about what one does with a warhead."
Powell's comments surprised senior officials in the administration who had been privy to the classified and unverified information about Iran's missile and warhead capabilities.
Earlier this month, U.S. intelligence received hundreds of pages of documents purporting to be Iranian nuclear warhead designs and plans to modify missiles to carry such warheads. But that information, officials said, has not been authenticated by U.S. intelligence. Officials have been proceeding cautiously in attempting to verify the information, mindful of mistakes made in prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons capabilities based partly on bad intelligence.
European officials, worried that Powell's comments undermined their deal with Iran, were told that the secretary misspoke, several sources said.
Powell, whose spokesman said the secretary stood by his remarks, did not refer to the controversy during an interview yesterday with Spanish-language Univision television.
His deputy, Richard L. Armitage, told al-Jazeera television: "There's not a big secret that Iran has been developing missiles. It's always been the combination of a drive for nuclear weapons and missiles that has been a great concern for the United States."
Also this week, an Iranian exile group claimed in Paris that Iran was already beyond the conversion process and was enriching uranium for a bomb. The group, known as the National Council for Resistance in Iran, offered no evidence for its allegations.