- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Iran said yesterday it was preparing to enrich uranium, taking a key step toward the capability of making atomic weapons just three days after the United Nations’ nuclear agency demanded that it suspend all such activities.

The announcement came amid renewed speculation that Israel, which feels directly threatened by Iran’s nuclear program, might use one of 500 bunker-buster bombs and other military equipment that it has requested from the United States to strike Iran’s underground atomic facilities.

“This is not the sort of ordnance needed for the Palestinian front. Bunker busters could serve Israel against Iran, or possibly Syria,” an Israeli source was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Maj. Gen. Elyezer Shkedy, chief of staff of Israel’s air force, was quoted last week as saying that if the government decides that a military solution to Iran’s nuclear development is required, “then the military has to provide a solution.”

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell expressed skepticism about the prospects for such a strike during a meeting last week with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“I don’t want to get too deeply into this, but based on what I know about the [Iranian nuclear] program, it is not one that lends itself to a simple military solution,” Mr. Powell said.

The secretary did not elaborate, but Newsweek reported this week that the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency had conducted war games on a strike at the Iranian program and had been unable to keep the conflict from escalating.

Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said yesterday that Iran had started converting 37 tons of raw “yellowcake” uranium for use in nuclear centrifuges — the machines that enrich uranium.

“Some of the amount of the 37 tons has been used. The tests have been successful, but these tests have to be continued using the rest of the material,” Mr. Aghazadeh, one of Iran’s vice presidents, told reporters in Vienna, Austria, where he was attending a general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the IAEA, said the agency was aware of Iran’s plans and would monitor its activities.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei “continues to call on Iran, as did the board, to suspend such a test as part of their confidence-building measures,” she said.

Iran continued to insist yesterday that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

“We are determined to obtain peaceful atomic technology, even if it causes the stop of international supervision,” said President Mohammad Khatami.

U.S. officials were not surprised by the announcement and their comments echoed previous statements on the subject.

“They have a continuous record of making and then breaking promises, both to the [IAEA] board as well as to others,” a State Department official said in reference to the Iranian government.

“This is the pattern of a country that has not made the strategic decision to give up its nuclear-weapons program,” the official said.

Both U.S. and Israeli officials declined to comment on an article in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz yesterday, which said the United States would conclude a $319 million sale of military equipment to Israel, including 500 bunker-buster bombs, after Election Day.

Israel’s announcement came after the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a possible military sale to Israel worth as much as $319 million.

“Israel purchases a wide range of military equipment from the United States on an ongoing basis,” one Israeli official said. “We can’t confirm specifics of any particular sale.”

On June 1, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a “possible” sale to Israel of “joint direct attack munitions, as well as associated equipment and services.” whose “total value, if all options are exercised, could be as high as $319 million.”

As part of the deal, the United States will sell Israel nearly 5,000 smart bombs in one of the largest weapons deals between the allies in years, wire service reports quoted Israeli military officials as saying.

The deal will expand Israel’s existing supply of the weapons, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agency listed the items that the Israeli government had requested, including the bunker-buster bombs.

“This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East,” the agency said in June.

“The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not affect the basic military balance in the region,” the agency said.

Although U.S. and Israeli officials said the deal in question is no different from many other such sales over the years, Iranian officials were quick yesterday to issue warnings.

An Iranian defense ministry spokesman said a U.S.-Israel deal that targets Iran could be “psychological warfare to test us.”

“Our response to any invasive measure will be massive,” said Massoud Jazaeri, spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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