- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

VIENNA, Austria — U.N. inspectors found traces of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium at a suspect Iranian nuclear facility, according to a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

Iranian officials said yesterday that the traces came with equipment purchased abroad decades ago, but the find heightened concerns of the Bush administration and others that Tehran is pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found “particles” of highly enriched uranium, which could be used in a weapons program, at the facility at Natanz, said the report prepared for a meeting of the agency’s board on Sept. 8 in Vienna. Contents of the report were made known to reporters by diplomats who requested anonymity.

The United States has accused Iran of developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, violating its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty barring the spread of atomic arms.

Iran has denied the accusations, insisting that its programs are devoted to generating electricity.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Tehran’s ambassador to the IAEA, said the equipment had been “contaminated” with enriched uranium before it was purchased by Iran.

He said in an interview that the equipment had been “bought many years ago from intermediaries,” and so it was impossible to name the countries of origin.

Separately, he said Iran was ready to discuss an IAEA request that it sign an additional agreement throwing open its nuclear programs to more intrusive, surprise inspections.

Mr. Salehi said the offer, made Monday, indicates “for the first time … that the government of Iran is ready to enter negotiations into the additional protocol.”

He said talks are likely after two IAEA meetings next month, the one on Sept. 8 and the other a week later, when the full IAEA assembly is to convene.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Bush administration was taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the latest IAEA findings, which have not been officially released, and to the Iranian offer for new talks.

The Iranians “have clearly not been forthcoming in the past with the actual facts and details about their secret nuclear programs, and that’s what’s been of great concern to us and, obviously, to the international community as a whole,” Mr. Reeker said.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky called Iran’s overture “a positive step.”

Suspicion about Iran’s nuclear program prompted IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to tour the country’s nuclear facilities in February. The visit was intended to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program was limited to peaceful, civilian purposes, and that the facilities were safe.

Mr. ElBaradei’s tour included a visit to the incomplete nuclear plant in Natanz, about 320 miles south of Tehran. At the time, diplomats said, he was taken aback by the advanced stage of a project using hundreds of centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Mr. Salehi said the centrifuges were being used only to produce low enriched uranium used as fuel for power plants.

Mr. Gwozdecky said the agency’s inspectors had visited Iran five times since June.

Analyzing the new material collected will take “weeks or months,” he added.

In July, Mr. ElBaradei pressed Iran for “substantial progress without delay” in clarifying aspects of its nuclear program and in signing an agreement that would let U.N. inspectors conduct in-depth and comprehensive checks of the country’s nuclear facilities.

At the time, he refused to confirm reports that agency inspectors had found enriched uranium in samples taken recently, calling it “pure speculation at this stage.”

Iran is building, with Russian help, its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, on the shores of the Persian Gulf. It has a capacity of 1,000 megawatts and is expected to be completed next year.

Iran’s second nuclear reactor will have a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, and the government is beginning feasibility studies for a 5,000 megawatt reactor, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported this month.

David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.

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