Iran says it has removed the seals on one of its nuclear facilities and resumed research on its nuclear program after a two-year hiatus. The move sparked immediate condemnation from the United States and Europe, and heightens the risk of Tehran being hauled before the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
The head of Iran's nuclear agency, Mohammed Saeedi, said nuclear research has resumed, two years after it was suspended.
The Iranian official says Tehran has worked closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency in establishing conditions for the resumption of nuclear work. He says, "Research plants and facilities that were sealed have been unsealed under the supervision of the agency's inspectors and now we have no problem in continuing research activities."
Saeedi said work at the plant will be limited to research for now, and not the actual production of nuclear fuel, which remains suspended.
But the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei contradicted that statement, telling the agency's board of governors that Iran does intend to begin "small-scale uranium enrichment."
The IAEA in Vienna confirmed that its inspectors were present for the removal of the seals at the Natanz research plant in central Iran.
Iran's move sparked an immediate outcry from the United States and the European Union, both of which believe Iran is attempting to produce nuclear weapons, which Iran denies.
The U.S. ambassador to the IAEA said Tehran "has shown disdain for international concern" over its nuclear program and is choosing "confrontation over cooperation."
French President Jacques Chirac said Iran must keep its international commitments over its nuclear program.
"Everyone recognizes that Iran and North Korea have a right to use nuclear energy peacefully," Mr. Chirac said. "But the international community must ensure that agreements are respected for the security of all of us. These countries would be committing a grave error, if they do not grasp the hand that we are extending to them."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says there is no reason why Iran should take such a step if its intentions are truly peaceful.
Even Iran's ally, Russia, expressed concern over the move, and said dialogue is the only way forward.
The White House said if Iran resumes uranium enrichment, there will be no option but to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where it could face sanctions.
That was exactly the prospect that prompted Tehran to suspend its nuclear program in October of 2003. Five months ago, Iranian authorities removed the seals at another nuclear plant, in Isfahan, and resumed the procedure known as uranium reprocessing, which is the step before enrichment in making nuclear fuel.
That move prompted a temporary shutdown in negotiations between Iran and the European Union over the nuclear issue. Those talks finally re-started last month, and another round is scheduled for later this month.