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U.N. Agency at 'Dead End' as Iran Rejects Queries on Nuclear Research

By Joby Warrick and Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said yesterday that it has reached an impasse with Iran over the country's refusal to account for past military research that U.S. officials think was part of a secret bomb-building program.

The apparent standoff was detailed in a report that also described substantial gains by Tehran in its efforts to make enriched uranium, the fuel used in commercial nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. Both developments suggested a further hardening of Iran's resolve to build its nuclear infrastructure in defiance of international sanctions.

"We seem to be at a dead end," said a senior official with the United Nations in a telephone briefing for journalists. The official discussed the International Atomic Energy Agency's report on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved.

In Washington, five former secretaries of state called yesterday on the winner of November's election to break with current U.S. policy and engage directly with Iran on stopping its nuclear development.

Colin L. Powell, Madeleine K. Albright, Warren Christopher, James A. Baker III and Henry Kissinger agreed on the need for talks during a forum at George Washington University, taped for broadcast later on CNN.

Iran has been challenged by the IAEA about dozens of documents the U.N. nuclear group has acquired, detailing secret nuclear research by Iranian scientists in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some of the research explored the use of specialized high-precision explosives of a type commonly used to detonate nuclear warheads. The IAEA said it recently acquired new information suggesting that Iran received "foreign expertise" in its research.

Iran has said that many of the documents -- given to the IAEA by U.S. and Western intelligence agencies -- are forgeries. In recent months, it has rebuffed multiple appeals by the IAEA to provide access to officials and records that could resolve the issue, the report said.

"Unless Iran provides such transparency . . . the Agency will not be able to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran," the report said.

The watchdog agency, which regularly visits key Iranian nuclear facilities, also confirmed that Iran is steadily bolstering capacity at its underground uranium-processing plant at Natanz, 130 miles south of Tehran. The facility contains nearly 3,800 uranium-processing machines, or centrifuges, which have cranked out a half-ton of commercial reactor-grade uranium usable in nuclear power plants. With further processing, the uranium could be made weapons-grade.

White House officials called the report's findings troubling and appealed again to Iran to suspend its nuclear program. "The Iranian regime's continued defiance only further isolates the Iranian people," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

In Tehran, however, Iranian officials highlighted positive points of the IAEA report, insisting that the U.N. agency had essentially verified Iran's claim that its nuclear ambitions were peaceful.

"After numerous inspections there was no evidence on diversion of nuclear activities and materials for military objectives," Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, said yesterday in comments carried on the Iranian Fars News Agency. Saying that Iran had "cooperated fully," he warned against further U.N. economic sanctions. They would have a "negative effect," he said, suggesting that Iran's cooperation with the IAEA could suffer.

Other Iranian officials issued statements criticizing the Bush administration, saying it was interfering in the IAEA investigation. The agency "is under extreme U.S. pressure to create a psychological basis for pressuring Iran," Javad Jahangirzadeh, a member of the Iranian parliament's foreign policy and national security commission, told the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

U.S. intelligence officials say Iran suspended nuclear weapons research in 2003 but decided to continue work on uranium enrichment so it could quickly launch a bomb-building program if it decides to do so.

Erdbrink reported from Tehran.

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