Monday, November 16, 2009
Nuclear Agency Warns of More Iranian Plants
By JAY SOLOMON and DAVID CRAWFORD
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- The United Nations atomic watchdog said Iran could be constructing a number of covert nuclear installations in addition to a secret uranium-enrichment facility the Obama administration disclosed in late September.
The International Atomic Energy Agency also said in a quarterly report released Monday that Iranian officials have told the U.N. that Tehran plans to begin operating the previously unknown nuclear-fuel facility outside the holy city of Qom by 2011.
The IAEA report is the last to be released under departing Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. U.S. officials have long criticized the Egyptian for deflecting Washington's criticism of Iran in official reports. Diplomats said Monday that the latest report was notable for its sharp tone.
U.S. and European officials believe the Qom site is designed to process Iran's low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade material. The IAEA said in its new report that Tehran has produced 1.76 tons of low-enriched uranium, enough to produce one or two atomic devices if enriched further.
In the report, the IAEA urged Iran to provide more information on the Qom plant, as well as greater access to Iranian scientists and documents. Without that access, the agency added, the international community can't be certain Tehran isn't developing a much larger clandestine nuclear infrastructure for military applications.
"The agency has indicated [to Iran] that its declaration of the new facility reduces the level of confidence in the absence of other facilities," the IAEA report said. "[It] gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities not declared."
Iran told U.N. investigators who visited the Qom facility last month that it began construction in 2007. But the IAEA said in its report that technical analysis and satellite imagery suggested Tehran actually started working on the plant in 2002.
The IAEA's disclosure Monday places added pressure on the Obama administration's efforts to use diplomacy to constrain Iran's nuclear ambitions. President Barack Obama has given Iran until year-end to show a commitment to negotiations or face expansive new economic sanctions.
Last month, the U.S. and other global powers presented Iran an offer to better manage Tehran's stockpile of nuclear fuel. The deal calls for Iran to ship roughly 70% of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods for Tehran's medical-research reactor. The White House believes the transfer of the nuclear fuel to international custody would prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons in the near term, while buying time for diplomacy.
In recent weeks, however, Iran has started to step back from its initial commitment to the nuclear-fuel deal. Tehran has said it won't agree to shipping out its low-enriched uranium in one batch. U.S. officials said that without a single-batch transfer of Iran's fuel, the deal loses its merits, and they stressed that Washington won't renegotiate its offer.
The IAEA says Iran's responses to key questions reduce confidence in its declarations.
Does Iran have undeclared nuclear sites?
Iran says it will announce new sites at least six months before operations begin.
When did Iran begin building an enrichment plant in Qom?
In 2007, Iran says, because of 'threats of military attack.'
"Now is the time for Iran to signal that it wants to be a responsible member of the international community," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday. "We will continue to press Iran...to meet its international nuclear obligations."
Iran has said its nuclear program is focused wholly on peaceful ends. On Sunday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Western pressure only makes Iran more determined to advance its nuclear capabilities.
"Cooperation with Iran in the nuclear field is in the interests of Westerners. Their opposition will make Iran more powerful and advanced," he said in a statement posted late Sunday on the presidential Web site.
Mr. Obama is using his first trip to Asia as president to try to gain Russian and Chinese support for new financial sanctions against Iran in case diplomacy fails. Both Moscow and Beijing have voiced reluctance to back new coercive measures against Tehran. Both nations have deep energy and security ties to Iran.
On Monday, however, Moscow suggested that it might be more supportive of U.S. policy.
Russia's energy minister told state media that a Russian-designed nuclear reactor being constructed in Iran wouldn't be operational this year. Russian officials cited technical issues, but U.S. officials say they believe the announcement may be an effort to pressure Iran because Russia built the reactor and has committed to supply fuel.
The IAEA's Mr. ElBaradei leaves his post at the end of the month and will be succeeded by Japan's Yukiya Amano, who has suggested he will play a less political role than his predecessor and focus more on technical aspects of preventing nuclear proliferation. Some U.S. officials say the IAEA could take a harder line on Iran and Syria in coming years under Mr. Amano's stewardship.
The IAEA on Monday also said Syria continues to defy U.N. requests for greater cooperation into a probe of Damascus's alleged nuclear activities. The U.S. charges Syria with secretly building a nuclear reactor with the support of North Korea. The Israeli air force destroyed the site in late 2007.
The IAEA has specifically been seeking President Bashar Assad's help in tracing uranium particles that U.N. investigators found last year at the bombed site. Syria denies it was secretly building the reactor. But IAEA officials said the uranium isn't from Syria's declared stock, nor is it likely to have come from Israeli munitions, as Damascus claims.
The IAEA also is seeking clarity from Syria on traces of fissile material that agency investigators found during an inspection of Damascus's research reactor. "Essentially, no progress has been made since the last report to clarify any of the outstanding issues," said the IAEA's report.
The U.S. and some Western governments have discussed in recent months the merits of pushing the IAEA to conduct a "special inspection" of Damascus's alleged nuclear infrastructure. If such an inspection was approved by the IAEA's board, Syria would either have to comply or potentially face U.N. sanctions.
Syria is Iran's closest strategic ally and the two nations cooperate closely in arming and funding militant groups fighting Israel, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Some Western diplomats said there have been concerns that Tehran was aiding Damascus's nuclear pursuits, though the IAEA hasn't disclosed any evidence of this.
Posted by Steve Douglass at 8:23 PM