Friday, February 23, 2007

VIENNA, Austria — Iran has ignored a U.N. Security Council ultimatum to freeze uranium enrichment and has instead expanded its program by setting up hundreds of centrifuges, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said yesterday. The finding paves the way for new U.N. sanctions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report to the Security Council and its 35-nation board that Tehran also has continued to build a heavy water reactor and related facilities which, along with enrichment, could help it develop nuclear arms.

In addition, the report said, Iran ignored a Security Council call to cooperate with the IAEA in its efforts to shed light on suspicious nuclear activities.

The conclusions, while widely expected, could serve as the trigger for the council to start deliberating on new sanctions against Iran.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said U.S. officials have already begun consulting with allies about the next steps, including sanctions. He said officials expect the council to meet on the matter as early as next week.

“The report gives us a pretty clear picture that shows that Iran has not changed its behavior, has not changed its views and is continuing on the path of defiance. We think that’s unfortunate,” he told reporters.

In Tehran, the deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammed Saeedi, said international demands for Iran to suspend enrichment violated Iran’s “rights, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and international regulations.”

The Security Council issued three demands to Iran on Dec. 23 — freeze uranium enrichment, stop building heavy water facilities and fully cooperate with the IAEA. It introduced limited sanctions and gave Iran 60 days to comply — a deadline that expired Wednesday.

The IAEA report prepared by director Mohamed ElBaradei showed Tehran has instead expanded its enrichment efforts by setting up nearly 1,000 centrifuges in and above an underground bunker, enriching minute amounts of uranium and bringing nearly 9 tons of gaseous feedstock — the mixture that is fed into the centrifuges for enrichment — into its underground nuclear facility at Natanz.

Iranian officials also informed the agency that they planned to have close to 3,000 centrifuges in place by May, the report said.

Iran’s stated goal is running 54,000 centrifuges at Natanz to churn out enriched uranium — enough for dozens of nuclear weapons a year.

Iran maintains it only wants to generate power and says its heavy water facilities at the central city of Arak — which will produce plutonium, another potential pathway to nuclear arms — are meant solely to generate isotopes for medical research and other peaceful purposes.

Even before the IAEA report was issued, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. and its allies would use the Security Council and other “available channels” to bring Tehran back to negotiations over its nuclear program.

British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett said her country would consult with other Security Council members on the next steps, adding: “We remain determined to prevent Iran acquiring the means to develop nuclear weapons.”

The sanctions approved in December banned all countries from supplying Iran with materials and technology that could contribute to its nuclear and missile programs and froze the Iranian assets of 10 key companies and 12 individuals related to those programs.

Russia and China, veto-holding council members with close ties to Iran, are likely to oppose strict economic sanctions or weapons bans. A travel ban was dropped from the initial resolution because of Moscow’s opposition, so tough negotiations are expected.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said yesterday that he had “no substantive comment” on the IAEA report, but he reiterated Moscow’s desire for a diplomatically negotiated solution.

“We should not lose sight of the goal — and the goal is not to have a resolution or to impose sanctions,” he said. “The goal is to accomplish a political outcome.”

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