Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The United States yesterday called for tough international action against Iran after reports that international inspectors have concluded Tehran has made major technical strides in recent days toward processing nuclear fuel — material that can power a reactor or an atomic bomb.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the Bush administration is prepared to press for a new round of U.N. sanctions if Iran defies resolutions calling on it to halt the enrichment of uranium — a critical step in the production of a nuclear weapon.

“What is key here, and what is obvious to everyone is that Iran has continued to act in defiance of the wishes of the international community,” Mr. Casey said. “We need to continue to apply pressure and increase pressure with an additional Security Council resolution if they don’t comply.”

Inspectors from the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, have determined that Iran has cleared a number of technical hurdles on the road to developing nuclear-grade fuel, although major challenges remain.

IAEA monitors made a snap inspection of a key Iranian nuclear facility in the town of Natanz over the weekend. The agency plans to issue a formal report to the Security Council on Iran’s suspect programs next week.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, in remarks published in the New York Times yesterday, said the U.S.-led drive to prevent Iran from obtaining the technology and know-how to enrich uranium had already failed. The only question now, Mr. ElBaradei said, was whether international pressure could keep Iran from mastering the final steps toward industrial-scale production.

“We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich,” he said in remarks later released by the IAEA.

“From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact,” Mr. ElBaradei said.

The United States and its European allies have been demanding Iran suspend all uranium-enrichment efforts by May 23. Tehran insists it has the right to develop nuclear power and says all its programs are for peaceful, civilian uses.

U.S. officials refused to comment on the latest round of IAEA inspections, saying no new information has been given to countries on the agency’s board in Vienna.

With Iran only grudgingly giving out information on its nuclear programs, it is not clear just how big a technical advance the country has made in recent months.

Mr. ElBaradei has made similar comments in the past about the impossibility of keeping Iran from acquiring at least the knowledge of how to make weapons-grade fuel. He said IAEA inspectors think Iran has yet to solve some major manufacturing and refining problems.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last month that Iran had already begun enriching uranium on an industrial scale, although outside specialists doubted the claim.

The IAEA itself concluded at the time that Iran was operating some 1,300 centrifuges — the machines that spin uranium gas into enriched material for both energy and weapons uses.

The New York Times article said the number of centrifuges at Natanz could jump to 3,000 by the end of next month. At that level, Iran could theoretically enrich enough uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb within a year.

But experts caution that Iranian technicians still face major obstacles in coordinating the individual centrifuges into a workable production chain.

The Bush administration said it still thinks diplomacy can resolve the crisis, but former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph yesterday, said the United States must consider regime change in Tehran and military action to stop Iran from getting the bomb.

“If all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force,” he said.

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