- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

LONDON — An underground Iranian uranium-enrichment facility holds about 1,000 gas centrifuges and can accommodate more than 1,000 people, says a 10-page report to be delivered in Vienna, Austria, today by Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency.

U.S. officials will use the special meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to press for urgent action to prevent Iran from acquiring an atom bomb as fears mount that Tehran is on course to develop a nuclear-weapons capability within two years.

Washington has expressed concern about the discovery of traces of weapons-grade uranium found in soil samples taken in July from the 250,000-acre top-secret nuclear facility at Natanz, in central Iran. Iranian officials said the traces came with equipment purchased abroad decades ago.

In his report, a copy of which has been obtained by the Sunday Telegraph, Mr. ElBaradei also lists several other serious concerns raised by U.N. weapons inspectors about the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran continues to insist is aimed at developing a nuclear power industry.

Inspectors are particularly concerned about the activity at the Natanz facility, which has sophisticated equipment for enriching uranium to weapons-grade standard. Even though the complex was built five years ago, the Iranian authorities confirmed its existence to the IAEA earlier this year only after Iranian exiles revealed its location.

U.N. inspectors who visited the site — due to be operational in 2005 — discovered an underground complex capable of holding more than 1,000 personnel. Two large halls designed to carry out uranium enrichment are sunk 25 feet underground with an 8-foot-thick concrete shell to protect them from air strikes.

Inside the complex, U.N. officials found 1,000 gas centrifuges, used for enriching uranium, and components for the manufacture of up to 50,000 more centrifuges.

Mr. ElBaradei’s 10-page report also says the Iranians have been forced to acknowledge — despite earlier denials — that they have used nuclear materials for research and have manufactured uranium metal, another key element for producing an atom bomb.

The report also details the inspectors’ concerns about the development of a heavy-water facility at Arak, another installation that the Iranians had kept secret from the IAEA officials until Iranian exiles revealed its existence.

If the sole purpose of Iran’s nuclear research were to develop an alternative-fuel supply, as Tehran claims, it would have no use for a heavy-water facility. The Bushehr nuclear-power complex being built with Russian help is designed to be run by a light-water nuclear reactor.

But heavy water, which has an extra hydrogen atom, is necessary for producing plutonium, another material used for nuclear weapons.

Mr. ElBaradei writes in the report’s conclusion that “there remain a number of important outstanding issues, particularly with regard to Iran’s enrichment program, that require urgent resolution.”

But U.S. officials are concerned that Mr. ElBaradei, who this year argued in favor of U.N. inspectors being given more time to locate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, will try to play down the significance of the recent discoveries.

One American closely involved in monitoring Iran’s nuclear program said: “The big difference between Iraq and Iran is that the Iranians now have the ability to develop an atom bomb within two years. The time has come to force the Iranians to come clean about their real intentions.”

Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, warned over the weekend that nuclear tensions could be aggravated if the IAEA board put too much pressure on Tehran at the Vienna meeting.

The Bush administration last week decided not to seek a resolution finding Iran in noncompliance of its IAEA obligations, a step that could have brought the matter before the U.N. Security Council for action ranging from criticism to sanctions.

The now-softened resolution expected to be introduced this week still calls for Iran’s “urgent and essential cooperation,” demands that it answer all outstanding questions about its uranium-enrichment program and sign a protocol permitting intrusive, snap IAEA inspections.

Diplomats said the softened resolution had a good chance of approval by a majority of the board.

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