By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007
The Bush administration plans to push for new sanctions against Iran after the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency reported yesterday that Tehran is providing "diminishing" information about its controversial nuclear program, U.S. officials said.
In a critically timed assessment, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran provided "timely" and helpful new information on a secret program that became public in 2002, but that it did not fully answer questions or allow full access to Iranian personnel. Iran is even less cooperative on its current program, the IAEA reported.
"Since early 2006, the agency has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing," the IAEA concluded. "The agency's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is diminishing."
The IAEA's report also confirmed that Iran has 3,000 centrifuges in operation, which is the minimum needed to enrich a significant amount of uranium and represents a tenfold increase over last year. Having 3,000 functioning centrifuges is a major technical milestone for Iran. Uranium enrichment can be used to develop peaceful nuclear energy as well as nuclear weapons.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated in recent months that Tehran has reached that strategic threshold. If all 3,000 centrifuges are working efficiently, Iran could produce a weapon in a year. But the report indicated that the IAEA has no evidence Iran could produce bomb-grade fuel, and most experts think it still faces significant technical problems.
"They have centrifuges, but it's unclear how well they work and how long they would work," said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At his confirmation hearings to be director of national intelligence in February, Mike McConnell estimated that Iran would not have a nuclear weapon until 2015.
Iran's new chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, heralded the IAEA's report for proving that "most ambiguities" about Tehran's program have been removed. At a news conference, he said the U.N. agency showed that allegations about Iran trying to subvert a peaceful energy program to develop the world's deadliest weapon are "baseless."
Ahmadinejad said the report by IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei shows the world that Iran has been "right and the resistance of our nation has been correct."
U.S. arms experts took a middle ground. "ElBaradei wants to focus on the positive in terms of the accounting for the past," Perkovich said. "But in the big strategic picture, the report is wholly negative because Iran is not suspending uranium enrichment. Iran is not only not suspending, but it is spitting in our face by saying they're going to ramp up with the next generation of centrifuges beyond what they had already."
The United States warned yesterday that Iran's failure to fully comply with U.N. mandates -- to suspend enrichment and detail its nuclear program -- is grounds for the United Nations to proceed on a long-delayed resolution imposing new sanctions on the Islamic republic.
"The key thing from the director general's report is that Iran's cooperation remains selective and incomplete," said Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. envoy to the IAEA in Austria. "So Iran has not met the world's expectation that it would disclose information on both its current and past programs."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that "partial credit doesn't cut it when you're talking about issues of whether or not Iran is developing a nuclear weapon." White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the report "makes clear that Iran seems uninterested in working with the rest of the world."
The Bush administration has been counting on two reports this month -- the IAEA's assessment and a report by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who negotiates with Iran -- to end five months of squabbling among the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council about further steps against Tehran. U.N. resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, passed in December and March, have been unsuccessful in getting Tehran to comply.
Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns expects to meet with his counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany the week after Thanksgiving to work on a third round of Security Council sanctions, he said yesterday.
Russia and China have resisted U.S. pressure, mainly to give more time for the IAEA's "work plan" to learn more about Iran's activities through 2002. They also are concerned about their own economic interests and the risk of fomenting wider tension between Iran and the West, according to U.S. and European diplomats.
"We need China to join the effort and agree to have the next meeting," Burns said in an interview. "We're concerned that China's trade has increased significantly with Iran. It's incongruous for China to continue to sell arms to Iran and become Iran's top trade partner. We've advised the Chinese to take a much more resolute role."