- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

NATANZ, Iran The chief U.N. nuclear arms inspector toured an Iranian nuclear plant yesterday, his first visit to two facilities that Tehran says are for energy production but Washington claims are part of a secret weapons program.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was also expected to press Iranian officials to give the agency broader access to its nuclear installations, as Tehran moves forward with an ambitious program to mine and process uranium.

Mr. ElBaradei, accompanied by two top IAEA officials, visited a facility being built in the central city of Natanz, about 200 miles south of Tehran, which Iran says is for nuclear-fuel enrichment, a senior Iranian official said on the condition of anonymity.

The visit the agency's first to the site was under tight security and reporters were kept away. Mr. ElBaradei is to inspect another facility today near the town of Arak, also in central Iran.

Earlier this month, Iran announced it had discovered and started mining uranium for the first time and was building facilities to process ore into fuel for nuclear-power plants. The project would give Iran independent access to fissile material. Iran is building its first nuclear-power reactor with Russian help.

During his visit, Mr. ElBaradei will likely urge Iran to sign a protocol giving the U.N. agency broader access to its sites, an IAEA official said.

Mr. ElBaradei also is expected to press the government to adopt a measure for "the early notification of design information," which would require it to inform the IAEA about a nuclear facility's design as soon as Iran decided to build it, the official said. So far all nations with nuclear programs except Iran and Iraq have adopted such a measure.

On this trip, Mr. ElBaradei and his team were making a "technical visit," which is not an inspection, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said in Vienna, Austria. During inspections, the agency uses scientists and equipment to ascertain whether any nuclear material is being diverted for military use. The agency has inspected other nuclear facilities in Iran, including in Tehran and in Isfahan in 2001, and plans to inspect the Natanz and Arak sites once construction there is completed.

In December, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said satellite imagery showed some structures at the Natanz plant were being covered with earth, indicating Tehran was building "a secret underground site where it could produce fissile material."

An Iranian government spokesman rejected the U.S. charges, saying "all our nuclear sites are for peaceful purposes and open to IAEA inspection."

Iran insists it is following international regulations in its nuclear program, and the IAEA says it had been aware for several years of Iran's plans to mine and process uranium.

Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced it was nearly finished building a plant near the city of Isfahan to carry out one of the early stages for processing the uranium ore into fuel. It also announced another facility in nearby Kashan, but gave no details on its use.

President Bush has grouped Iran along with Iraq and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Iran is building its first nuclear-power plant, a 1,000-megawatt reactor, at the southern port of Bushehr with Russian help. The United States has tried to dissuade Russia from assisting the project.

Yesterday, a top Russian official dismissed U.S. concerns, saying, "At this moment in time, Iran does not have the capacity to build nuclear weapons.

"We are giving them only technology that is monitored and authorized by the [IAEA]. I can vouch that construction of an atomic power station with the return of spent fuel [to Russia] poses no danger," Reuters news agency quoted Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev as saying.

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