Iran began converting a new batch of uranium at a key nuclear facility yesterday, rejecting international pleas to suspend such work and dismissing a new offer -- sponsored by Russia -- that was designed to ease tensions over the country's nuclear ambitions, U.S. and European officials said.
The work at the facility in the town of Isfahan does not bring Iran significantly closer to nuclear capability. But the decision to convert additional uranium -- a key ingredient for fueling nuclear energy or weapons programs -- was seen as a provocative move just days after Iranian officials reacted coolly to the Russian offer.
Coming at a sensitive time, the Iranian moves threatened to derail efforts to set up a meeting next week between European and Iranian officials that was meant to reinvigorate negotiations on hold since the summer, diplomats said. Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is leading an investigation of Iran's nuclear program, also canceled a planned trip to Tehran, said officials in Vienna, where the agency is based.
R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, was to travel to London today to meet with his European and Russian counterparts about next steps in an effort to increase diplomatic pressure on Tehran. The 35-member IAEA board meets in Vienna on Nov. 24 to discuss the status of Iran's program. For more than two years, the Bush administration has been unable to persuade allies to send the Iranian nuclear case to the U.N. Security Council, where the country could face economic sanctions for failing to disclose a nuclear energy program built in secret over 18 years.
Iran has said the program was designed to produce nuclear energy, not bombs. But the scale of the program and its clandestine nature have fueled suspicions that Tehran is using it to conceal a weapons effort. The Bush administration and several key allies have said they want Iran to forgo plans to complete a uranium enrichment facility, the most sensitive aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle, because it would give Iran the capacity to produce bomb-grade uranium. The Iranians have said they will not give up that part of the program, which they are allowed to have as signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
One of the key countries that has so far resisted sending Iran's case to the Security Council is Russia, which has a close economic partnership with Tehran and helped build one of the country's larger nuclear power reactors.
Igor Ivanov, a senior Kremlin adviser and the country's former foreign minister, offered Iran a deal that would have allowed it to continue operating the Isfahan facility as long as Iran's enrichment effort remained on hold. According to officials who have been briefed on the offer, the converted uranium from Isfahan would have been shipped to Russia for enrichment and then sent back to Iran to fuel the Russian-built reactor. Russia offered Iran a 35 percent financial stake in the Russian end of the enrichment process and suggested the deal remain in effect for several years while Iran continued to negotiate a broad-ranging deal with the West.
Iranian officials initially rejected the deal but then offered cool public statements saying they would consider the proposal. At the end of the Ivanov trip, the Iranians reportedly agreed to delay additional work at Isfahan until after the Vienna meeting and committed to a meeting next week with European and Russian officials.
But yesterday, the Iranians began converting more uranium at the Isfahan facility. Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the IAEA, said agency inspectors were at the facility at the time. The Bush administration is hoping the move may persuade Russia to vote with other IAEA board members to send Iran's case to the United Nations.
David Albright, a nuclear expert and the president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said Iran's move at Isfahan was "mostly symbolic" but the Iranians will "end up with a larger stock" of converted uranium that they can store away for the day when their own enrichment facility is completed. If that happens, Iran could wind up with enough bomb-grade uranium for as many as eight weapons, he said.