- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 29, 2009

VIENNA, Austria | Iran has slowed its expansion of uranium enrichment and met some demands for transparency, but allegations that it researched how to build atom bombs look credible and Tehran must address them, the U.N. atomic watchdog said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency report will form the basis for six-party talks on Sept. 2 to look into harsher U.N. sanctions against the Islamic republic over a uranium enrichment campaign the West fears is a stealthy quest for nuclear weapons.

Russia and China, close Tehran trade partners, may resist expected calls from Western powers to squeeze Iran’s lifeblood oil sector by pointing to new Iranian gestures of cooperation with IAEA inspectors, cited in the agency report.

But diplomats said a summary of an IAEA probe into purported military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear activity was unusually blunt, giving credence to intelligence material, and would stiffen Western resolve to seek tougher sanctions.

“This latest IAEA report catalogs a litany of Iranian obfuscation and obstruction. It makes clear that Iran continues willfully to fail to meet its legally binding international obligations,” said Philip Parham, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations in New York.

The IAEA said Iran was enriching uranium with about 300 fewer centrifuges than the almost 5,000 operating at the time of the last IAEA report, the first such scale back in around three years. The report did not venture possible reasons.

But an informed senior diplomat said earlier a batch of machines had been taken down for maintenance or repairs.

However, the confidential U.N. watchdog report, obtained by Reuters, said Iran had raised the total number of installed, though not all enriching, machines by some 1,000 to 8,308.

This would allow Tehran to resume a major expansion of enrichment capacity swiftly if it chose, barring technical glitches, U.N. officials familiar with the report said.

Consequently, a White House official said the report showed that Iran effectively “continues to expand its nuclear program and continues to deny the IAEA full cooperation.”

U.N. officials said they could not rule in or out the possibility that Iran’s apparent nuclear slowdown was connected with unrest over the disputed presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in June.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates seized a ship several weeks ago that was bound for Iran and was carrying North Korean weapons in violation of a U.N. embargo, Western diplomats said Friday.

“They did seize the ship and it was carrying weapons from North Korea for Iran,” a U.N. Security Council diplomat said, confirming a report in the Financial Times.

Another diplomat said the UAE reported the incident to the Security Council sanctions committee on North Korea. The committee is investigating and sent letters to Tehran and Pyongyang on Aug. 25 informing them of the seizure and demanding a response within 15 days.

The 18-year-old cargo ship ANL Australia was carrying rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, U.N. officials told the Associated Press.

The West suspects Iran is pursuing the means to produce atomic bombs under cover of a civilian nuclear fuel program.

Iran says it wants only electricity from nuclear power and has again rejected U.N. demands for a halt despite new fissures in its conservative leadership over the popular turmoil.

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