By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
PARIS, Feb. 14 -- Iran announced Tuesday that it had resumed uranium enrichment efforts in defiance of international pressure to curb its nuclear program and said it will no longer comply with voluntary measures designed to enhance international inspectors' access to its nuclear facilities.
"The order to resume uranium enrichment has been issued," Javad Vaeidi, deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told reporters in Tehran, according to Iranian news agencies. "The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization has restarted the process."
Monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed during inspections Tuesday that Iran had begun the first small-scale steps in the years-long process of enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear power, or eventually weapons production, according to a Western diplomat close to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the monitoring team's report will not be released officially for several weeks.
Although Iranian officials said Tuesday that they are years away from being able to produce atomic fuel on an industrial scale, the decision to restart uranium enrichment represents a significant escalation of the political crisis between Tehran and foreign governments.
"They've now walked across the line in such a blatant way that it's hard to see where any other red line could be drawn," said Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London and a former U.S. liaison to the IAEA in Vienna. "Now they've done what everybody was afraid of."
Iran's announcements and the IAEA monitoring team's findings increased pressure on the U.N. Security Council to take action against Iran for breaching international agreements on its nuclear program, diplomats in Vienna said.
The 35-member IAEA governing board, which includes the five permanent members of the Security Council, reported "serious concerns" about Iran's nuclear intentions to the Security Council on Feb. 4. Diplomats agreed that the Security Council would not take action until an IAEA board meeting on March 6, when the agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, is scheduled to present an update on Iran's actions.
ElBaradei's report will include the finding of IAEA monitors that Iran last weekend began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into a handful of centrifuges, which spin the material at supersonic speeds to create enriched uranium, a Vienna-based diplomat said.
"This means the IAEA will have to produce a report that is quite negative with regard to Iran," Fitzpatrick said. "The director general would have been looking to produce a report that described ways in which Iran was cooperating. . . . Iran is not giving ElBaradei anything to work with here."
In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Iran was "continuing to choose defiance and confrontation over cooperation and diplomacy."
The IAEA team, after its inspection of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility about 150 miles south of Tehran, reported that Iran is using fewer than five centrifuges, the diplomat said.
Vaeidi, the Iranian national security official, said during comments to reporters Tuesday that Iran needed 60,000 centrifuges for large-scale enrichment, adding, "We need some time to reach that."
Iranian officials Tuesday also said they would end voluntary compliance with an addendum to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that allows IAEA inspectors access to any nuclear facility within two hours of their request. It also grants the IAEA greater access to certain documentation and information about Iran's nuclear program.
"We are in the transition state and the inspectors will work under the NPT," Mohammad Saeedi, deputy of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said on state television, referring to the treaty. "We will not do anything beyond our commitments to the NPT."
Western diplomats in Vienna said Iran's refusal to comply with the additional voluntary agreements will impede the IAEA's ability to monitor Iranian activities. "It is very difficult for us to provide assurance that there is no parallel or secret program happening," one diplomat said.
Iranian officials describe their decision to move ahead with uranium enrichment as an act of independence in the face of criticism and mistrust on the part of the United States and other Western countries, which Iran accuses of trying to hobble its efforts to produce nuclear energy.
Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, Iran's parliament speaker, said during a visit Tuesday to Caracas, Venezuela, that U.S. opposition to Iran's nuclear program was "only a pretext."
He added, "They are worried that we want to be independent."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated in a televised speech Saturday that Iran was trying to develop nuclear technology for fuel in the face of dwindling oil supplies.
"We ask them why they are against our nuclear technology," Ahmadinejad said in the speech. "They answer: Because they do not trust us."
He warned the Iranian people to brace for possible economic sanctions in the coming months.
The Security Council has not indicated a course of action it might take against Iran. The United States and Europe have been pushing hardest for some type of strong political retribution, while Iran's allies and major trading partners, including Russia and China, are wary of the intentions of the Western governments.
Russia, which has invested about $1 billion in constructing an Iranian nuclear facility, has attempted to act as broker, offering to enrich uranium in Russia and turn the product over to Iran.
Ahmadinejad scoffed at the proposal in his speech Saturday, telling his Tehran audience, "They say that they will produce the fuel somewhere else and then they will hand it over to us.
"We say, what a surprise!" he continued. "Do you expect us to be stupid enough to believe you?"
Iranian officials have scheduled a meeting with Russian authorities on Feb. 20 to discuss the proposal.