- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The United States yesterday accused Iran of mining and enriching uranium as a "pretext" for developing nuclear weapons, a day after the "axis of evil" member publicly disclosed the program and said it will be used only for peaceful purposes.
But the Bush administration said it will work with other countries in the region to prevent Iran from producing atom bombs, rather than threaten military action, as it has done in Iraq.
"Iran's ambitious and costly pursuit of a complete nuclear fuel cycle only makes sense if it's in support of a nuclear-weapons program," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
"We continue to have very grave concerns that Iran is using its supposedly peaceful nuclear program … as a pretext for advancing a nuclear-weapons program," he said.
Iranian President Mohammed Khatami said Sunday that his country possesses uranium ore reserves and had begun mining operations in the Savand area in central Iran. Yesterday, atomic energy chief Gholamreza Aqazadeh announced that uranium processing was about to start.
As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran says it will provide access to its facilities to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency. An IAEA delegation is scheduled to arrive in Tehran on Feb. 25.
But Mr. Boucher urged Iran "to make good on this claim of transparency by accepting and fully implementing" an IAEA "safeguard-strengthening additional protocol."
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and European Union officials also called on Iran to sign such a document, which would allow more thorough U.N. inspections with little warning.
"It would now help Iran's cause greatly if it signed an additional protocol with the [IAEA] to persuade the doubters," European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin told Reuters news agency yesterday.
Mr. ElBaradei told reporters at the Athens airport, "I would like to work closely with them to enable them to demonstrate their commitment to a peaceful program."
Mr. Boucher said Washington expects the IAEA to "vigorously investigate Iran's nuclear program, particularly in light of the two previously secret nuclear-related facilities that came to light recently only through the press disclosure by an anti-Iranian group."
The United States has repeatedly questioned the Iranian government's nuclear intentions and has been trying to persuade Russia to stop providing equipment and fuel to a nuclear-power plant under construction in the southern port of Bushehr.
Because Moscow "has agreed to provide all the uranium fuel for the lifetime of the Bushehr reactor," Mr. Boucher said, "Iran's admission that it's been mining uranium … raises serious questions about Iran's supposedly peaceful nuclear program."
In addition, he said, if reports that Iran plans to process spent fuel are accurate, "that would directly contradict" Tehran's agreement with Moscow "to return all of the spent fuel to Russia."
Such a move "would lay bare Iran's ambitious desire to develop the capability to produce weapons-usable fissile material under its own control," he said.
The IAEA said yesterday that it has been aware of Iran's plan to mine and process uranium for more than a decade.
"This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project for several years now," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA. "In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992, and the Iranians announced to us officially in September their plans to develop an ambitious nuclear-power program that would include the entire nuclear fuel cycle."
Last year, President Bush included Iran, which the State Department has designated a state sponsor of terrorism, in an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea. The administration is pursuing a diplomatic solution to the latest nuclear standoff with Pyongyang while it is gearing up for war with Baghdad.
Mr. Boucher declined to confirm or deny a report in The Washington Post on Saturday that U.S. officials met Iranian officials in Europe last month to discuss aspects of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. The report, which Tehran denied the next day, said the United States had sought a pledge of humanitarian assistance for any refugees displaced by a war in Iraq and an assurance that Iran would not interfere in military operations.
But Mr. Boucher said, "We have had talks with Iran on matters of mutual interest, most particularly in the context of the discussions on Afghanistan. … We've taken opportunities to discuss items with Iran that are of concern to us, to discuss matters that are in our interests."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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