VIENNA, Austria — U.N. inspectors have found traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment from an Iranian research center linked to the military, diplomats said yesterday — a revelation likely to strengthen U.S. arguments that Tehran wants to develop nuclear arms.
The diplomats, who demanded anonymity in exchange for divulging the confidential information, cautioned that confirmation still had to come through other laboratory tests.
Still, they said, further analysis could show that the find matches others established to have come from abroad. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) determined earlier traces of highly enriched uranium were imported on equipment from Pakistan that Iran bought on the black market during nearly two decades of clandestine activity.
Even then, nevertheless, the find would be significant.
Because Iran has previously denied conducting enrichment-related activities at the site — a former research center at Lavizan-Shian — the mere fact the traces came from there bolsters arguments that it has hidden parts of a program that can create the fissile material used in nuclear warheads. Additionally, the site’s connection to the military weakens Iranian arguments that its nuclear program is purely civilian.
“That has long been suspected as the site of undeclared enrichment research and … the Iranians have denied that any enrichment research had taken place at that location,” said Iran specialist Gary Samore of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. “It certainly does reinforce the agency’s suspicion that Iran has not fully declared its past enrichment research.”
One diplomat said the samples came from vacuum pumps that have various applications, including use in uranium-enriching centrifuges at Lavizan-Shian.
The United States says Iran conducted high-explosive tests that could have a bearing on developing nuclear weapons at the site.
The State Department said in 2004 that Lavizan-Shian’s buildings had been dismantled and topsoil removed to hide nuclear weapons-related experiments. The IAEA later confirmed the site had been razed.
In an April 28 report, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said the agency took samples from some of the equipment of the former Physics Research Center at Lavizan-Shian.
Uranium enriched to between 3.5 percent and 5 percent is used to make fuel for reactors to generate electricity. It becomes suitable for use in nuclear weapons when enriched to more than 90 percent.
Iran denies it wants to make nuclear arms and says it is interested in uranium only to generate power.
Yesterday’s development, however, was unlikely to result in an immediate American push for strong U.N. Security Council action against Tehran. The Americans recently agreed to put such efforts on hold and give new European-led attempts to find a negotiated solution.
Iran’s president remained defiant. He accused the Americans of “waging a propaganda campaign” against his country. “The people of Iran and the country are not afraid of them,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Islamic leaders in Indonesia.