Thursday, September 25, 2003

International inspectors have found traces of enriched uranium at a second site in Iran, sharply raising fears that Tehran is secretly trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Diplomats with the U.N.’s Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told reporters yesterday that the find was made at Kalaye Electric Co., a facility south of the capital, during a visit in August. Iranian officials had blocked IAEA officials from the site for two months before finally permitting the inspection.

President Bush, who included Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his “axis of evil,” told reporters at the White House that he repeatedly pressed world leaders about Iran’s nuclear programs during meetings this week at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. He promised it would be a major focus of his talks today and tomorrow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their Camp David summit.

“It is very important for the world to come together to make it very clear to Iran that there will be universal condemnation if they continue with a nuclear- weapons program,” Mr. Bush said. “And I will tell you, the response was very positive.”

The Kalaye discovery follows the revelation earlier this year of a similar find of enriched uranium at a plant in the Iranian city of Natanz, about 150 miles from Tehran. The Natanz sample startled experts, for it appeared to indicate that Iran’s Islamic regime was much farther along the path to developing nuclear weapons than had previously been thought.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky refused to confirm publicly the newest findings at Kalaye, noting that a team of agency experts will travel to Tehran on Sunday for a five-week fact-finding mission. Iran already faces an Oct. 31 deadline to provide proof that it does not have a nuclear-weapons program, and to allow far more intrusive inspections of suspect facilities.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the Oct. 31 deadline “one last chance for Iran to comply,” saying the United States would press for U.N. Security Council action if Iran failed to act.

IAEA reports in recent months have tracked a series of deceptions and half-truths about Iran’s nuclear programs, including denials by Iranian officials that they had even experimented with enriched uranium or that they had received any outside aid in building their nuclear facilities.

U.S. and U.N. officials also fear that Iran has been delaying inspection missions in order to clean up evidence of nuclear testing.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the agency board’s decision to back the Oct. 31 deadline urged by Washington “tells us that there are signals that are worrying.”

Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, saying its programs are intended solely for civilian energy needs.

The enriched uranium found at the two sites, the regime says, are trace elements left from imported machinery and materials used to operate the plants.

But Iran’s badly divided government — rent by feuds between reformers around President Mohammed Khatami and religious hard-liners close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — has sent mixed signals about its willingness to cooperate with international inspectors and bow to pressure from the Bush administration and leading European governments.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who is close to the president, said in New York this week that his country did not have a nuclear-weapons program, accusing Washington of “politicizing the environment” with its pressure on the IAEA.

Asked if Iran planned to follow North Korea’s lead and withdraw altogether from the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Mr. Kharrazi replied, “Hopefully not.”

But more hawkish elements in the Iranian leadership, fearful that the U.S. military machine that targeted Afghanistan and Iraq will now turn on Iran, have urged the government to resist the IAEA’s demands.

The hard-line daily Keyhan, whose editor is close to Ayatollah Khamenei, wrote last week that bowing to international pressure for new inspections would “pave the ground for the collapse of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic and place the noble Iranian Muslim people under the yoke of savage Americans.”

Even Mr. Khatami, in remarks reported yesterday, called the IAEA ultimatum “unjust.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin have long been at odds over Russia’s $800 million contract to build Iran’s first nuclear power plant at the port city of Bushehr.

Washington contends that oil-rich Iran has no need for such a plant, and argues it will only further Iran’s nuclear-weapons programs. But to date Russian energy officials have refused to halt construction at the plant.

But a top foreign policy adviser to Mr. Putin said in New York this week that Moscow might reconsider if it could obtain alternative profit-making projects elsewhere.

“Our nuclear industry has to have projects to survive,” said Mikhail Margelov, a Putin ally who chairs the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper legislative house.

“If there is another economic opportunity to reorient from Iran to another project, we would do it,” Mr. Margelov told business leaders Wednesday at a Eurasia Group seminar held on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering. “It’s just a matter of zeroes after the comma.”

• Sharon Behn contributed to this report.

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