TEHRAN | U.N. inspectors got their first look Sunday inside a once-secret uranium enrichment facility that has raised Western suspicions about the extent of Iran’s nuclear program.
The semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported the four-member team visited the heavily protected facility, carved into a mountainside south of Tehran. The tour marked the first independent examination of the site, but no results were expected until after the inspectors leave Iran later this week.
The review coincides with the countdown to Iran’s decision on whether to accept a U.N.-brokered deal to process nuclear fuel abroad - a plan designed to ease Western fears about Iran’s potential to produce weapons-grade material.
The disclosure last month of Iran’s second enrichment facility - known as Fordo after a village believed to have the largest percentage of fighters killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq - raised international suspicion over the extent and aim of Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran says that by reporting the existence of the site voluntarily to the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, it pre-empted a “conspiracy” against Tehran by the U.S. and its allies who were hoping to present the site as evidence that Iran was developing its nuclear program in secret.
Iran also has promised to respond later this week to a U.N.-drafted proposal to have its nuclear fuel processed outside the country. Iran claims it only seeks reactors for research and energy.
The nuclear deal - discussed last week after talks in Vienna, Austria, with the United States, France and Russia - has been the subject of mounting criticism in Iran.
On Saturday, parliament speaker Ali Larijani claimed the West was trying to “cheat” Iran under the deal that would ship most of Iran’s partly processed uranium to Russia.
Mr. Larijani, the country’s former nuclear negotiator, said Iran prefers to buy the nuclear fuel it needs for a reactor that makes medical isotopes.
Rejection of the U.N. deal would force the United States and its allies to either return to talks or step up demands for greater economic sanctions.
The four-member delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency is led by Herman Nackaerts, director of IAEA’s division of operations department of safeguards, and is scheduled to stay three days in Iran.
The inspectors are expected to compare Iran’s engineering plans with the actual layout of the plant, interview employees and take environmental samples to check for the presence of nuclear materials.
The site, about 20 miles north of Qom, is protected by military installations including missile silos and anti-aircraft batteries, Iranian officials said last month.
Iran says the facility won’t be operational for 18 months.
The small-scale site is meant to house 3,000 centrifuges - much less than the estimated 8,000 machines at Natanz, Iran’s known industrial-scale enrichment facility. Still, the machines in Qom facility will produce nuclear fuel, which could be further enriched into material for atomic warheads.
Iran says it has built the facility inside a mountain next to a military site to protect its nuclear activities in case of an attack by the U.S. or Israel.