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IAEA Meets to Discuss Iran's Resumption of Nuclear Activity

  • Roger Wilkison

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is holding an emergency meeting in Vienna to discuss Iran's resumption of nuclear fuel cycle activity. The crisis over Iran's nuclear program escalated on Monday after the Islamic republic restarted work at a uranium conversion plant, fanning Western fears that it may be seeking a nuclear bomb.

European diplomats say they expect Britain, France and Germany - the three European powers that have been negotiating with Iran - to call on the Islamic republic to keep to an agreement the two sides reached last November whereby Iran froze nuclear fuel cycle activities in exchange for a package of economic, technological and political incentives.

But the diplomats say that they do not expect the Europeans or the United States to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions, at least not yet. They say the Western strategy is to warn Iran that it must comply with the November agreement, and if it does not, then have the nuclear agency's governors meet again and decide whether to take the issue to the Security Council.

What has unnerved the Western powers is Iran's resumption Monday of conversion of uranium ore concentrate into uranium gas at its conversion plant in the city of Isfahan. The Iranians say that they are converting uranium ore into uranium tetrafluoride, but not uranium hexafluroide gas, which could be enriched in centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel that could eventually be used to make a bomb.

A spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, Melissa Fleming, says its inspectors witnessed the resumption of fuel cycle activity at the Isfahan plant, but that the work began before the IAEA's monitoring cameras had been tested.

"We can confirm that the Iranians have begun to feed uranium ore concentrate into the process line at the Iranian conversion facility in Isfahan," she said. "Regrettably, they did this despite our telling them that we needed a 24-hour testing period for the cameras that we had set up."

Though Iran says it has a right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to develop the fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, for civilian purposes, the United States and the three European powers suspect it wants to develop an atomic bomb.

Iran denies that, but Western diplomats say they are suspicious of Iranian intentions because Iran hid its enrichment program from IAEA inspectors until the existence of a huge enrichment plant at Natanz was revealed by exiled dissidents in 2002.

The Europeans are clearly upset by Iran's latest move, which was preceded by an Iranian rejection of an EU incentive package. The Iranians say they are keeping the door open for more talks, but Europe's diplomatic effort to keep negotiations alive, after two years of tough discussions, is now hanging in the balance.