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IAEA Officials Return from Iran - 2003-02-27

Officials from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency return from Iran Thursday after examining a nuclear facility at Natanz that some fear could be used to make material for atomic bombs. Iran's nuclear activities raise fear the country is working on nuclear wepons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency officials viewed centrifuges used to make enriched uranium, the main fuel for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. While the facility is still a long way from producing useful amounts of the atomic material, an expert familiar with the findings says it is closer to completion than the IAEA had expected.

An Iranian resistance group first drew public attention to the Natanz facility and other suspected nuclear sites last August.

Iran says its nuclear program is intended for civilian power generation, not bomb-making. But experts say Iran could generate electricity from its abundant oil and natural gas reserves, for a fraction of the cost of nuclear power. Weapons expert Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There simply is no economic case that Iran can make that it needs these reactors for civil purposes," he says.

Iran is building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast with help from Russia. The used nuclear fuel, which could be used to make weapons, will remain under Russia's control. But Iran announced earlier this month that it intends to produce its own reactor fuel. Nuclear nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione, author of "Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction," says there are serious concerns about why Iran wants to produce its own nuclear material. "The reactors it's building with Russia don't require it to have this capability," he says. "So it confirms people's worst fears that what Iran is about is really not pursuing a civilian nuclear program, but acquiring the techniques and the technology for a nuclear weapons program."

Experts say Iran is complying with the IAEA. It voluntarily opened the Natanz site, and it has agreed to notify the agency before it builds more nuclear facilities. But Anthony Cordesman says the agency's visit this week may have done more harm than good. "Having visits by the IAEA are virtually meaningless. If anything, they can be terribly misleading because the end result for many people is to assume that somehow the IAEA has carried out an inspection. And it hasn't."

The IAEA says the trip was not an inspection. And Iran has not signed on to a protocol that would authorize the agency to conduct surprise inspections. Experts say without that authority, the IAEA's power to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons is limited.