By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Iranian nuclear specialists have begun enriching a new batch of uranium in an apparent act of defiance just days ahead of a U.N. Security Council deadline for Tehran to stop such work or face the prospect of economic sanctions, officials in Washington and European capitals who have been monitoring Iran's efforts said yesterday.
Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency plan to formally disclose the new enrichment work, as well as additional Iranian nuclear advances, in a report due out tomorrow, according to the officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The officials stressed that the Iranians are working at a slow pace with small quantities of uranium, and that they are enriching the material to an extremely low level that could not be used for nuclear weapons. Still, it is unlikely that the Iranians will stop the work in time to meet the Security Council's deadline.
For three years, Iran and the United States have publicly sparred over a nuclear program that Tehran says it built to produce energy but which the Bush administration believes is a cover for nuclear weapons work. IAEA inspectors have been trying, without success, to determine the true nature of the program, which Iran kept secret for 18 years.
Last month, the Security Council ordered Iran to shutter its nuclear facilities by Aug. 31 and cooperate with inspectors or face consequences. If Iran complied, U.S. officials said they were prepared to join talks on Iran's nuclear program and the possibility of future cooperation. But, yesterday, senior Bush administration officials said they are determined to impose sanctions against the Tehran government if it fails to comply, even though Russia and other nations seem reluctant to participate.
"We've seen no indication that Iran intends to comply with the U.N. Security Council's condition of suspending its nuclear program," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, the administration's lead diplomat on the Iran issue, said in an interview. "Should it not comply by Thursday, and should the IAEA report confirm Iran's continued efforts to enrich uranium, the U.S. will move to begin sanctions discussion at the United Nations, and we expect a sanctions resolution to be passed," he said.
Despite comments over the weekend from senior Russian officials that it is too early for sanctions, Burns said the administration would press for the commitments that it believes Moscow and others made when they passed the deadline resolution in July.
Burns said he will meet his European, Chinese and Russian counterparts next week in Berlin, and that he expects sanctions to be in place by the end of September.
But other officials seemed less certain that the Bush administration could persuade the U.N. Security Council to approve or even enforce sanctions against one of the world's major oil exporters.
"We might take another shot at a resolution that puts sanctions forward. The exact nature of that and whether it will require additional steps or not, you know, we'll just have to wait and see," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said yesterday. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also indicated that the administration may work outside the council.
European officials appeared less eager to discuss sanctions and were arranging to meet later this week in Europe with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. The Iranians put forth what they said was a new proposal last week, and said they are eager for talks with the United States and its allies but will not comply with the resolution as a precondition for those discussions.
At the United Nations, Britain's ambassador said that the Iran situation will not come up for discussion again until mid-September. In France, Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he hopes sanctions can be averted.
"But Iran has less than a week to comply with the resolution. We shall make the most of the remaining time to have more detailed discussions regarding its response," he told reporters.
Privately, two senior administration officials said that if Russia or China balked at sanctions now, the United States would push a backup plan to restrict Iran's nuclear industry, freeze the assets of key members of the Tehran government, and prevent them from traveling abroad. The measures would be imposed collectively by the European Union and possibly Japan. Some hoped that the IAEA report would encourage nations to work harder on the Iran issue.
"A tough report puts the focus back on Iran, which has broken rules and has failed to cooperate, and takes it away from this perception that the U.S. is just bullying Iran," said George Perkovich, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "An IAEA report that calls it like it is makes it hard for countries to walk away from the issue because it will be clear that it isn't getting better."
Several times since international pressure began to build against Iran's nuclear program in 2003, Tehran has rushed to complete small projects immediately ahead of deadlines, calculating that technical achievements would give it a tactical advantage during negotiations.
Officials familiar with the inspectors' summer findings said they will report that Iran has produced several kilograms of low-enriched uranium and as much as 145 tons of converted uranium in the past year. Iran's two main nuclear facilities, the IAEA's most heavily monitored in the world, are outfitted with dozens of cameras pointed at every piece of equipment and barrel that contains uranium.
Inspectors continue to visit certain sites as well, but Iran ended voluntary cooperation with the agency several months ago and has threatened to end it entirely if the Security Council imposes sanctions.
Much of what is known by U.S. intelligence about Iran's nuclear program comes from the inspectors. Current intelligence assessments predict that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within a decade if it vastly improves its capabilities.