The head of the U.N. nuclear agency said on Wednesday he saw “no radical change” in Iran's nuclear program in the past three months, broadly covering the period since relative moderate Hassan Rouhani became president.
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Reuters that the Islamic Republic was continuing its most sensitive nuclear activity, enrichment of uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent.
But his comments suggested that Iran during the August-November period had also not sharply expanded its uranium enrichment work, which Tehran says is peaceful but the West fears could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
In addition, Amano said Iran still had “quite a lot to do” in order to complete the Arak research reactor, a plant which is of deep concern to the West as it can produce plutonium, another potential atomic bomb fuel, once it is operating.
The IAEA is expected to issue its next quarterly report on Iran - a document keenly scrutinized by Western governments - on Thursday or Friday this week. It will be the first that only covers developments after Rouhani took office.
“I can say that enrichment activities are ongoing ... no radical change is reported to me,” Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat, said in an interview in his office on the 28th floor of the IAEA's headquarters in Vienna.
He spoke two days after Iran agreed to give his inspectors access to two nuclear-related facilities as part of a cooperation pact that aims to allay international concern about the country's nuclear program.
Amano said the agreement was an important first step towards clarifying outstanding issues between the U.N. agency and Tehran, including suspicions that Iran has carried out atomic bomb research, a charge Tehran denies.
Iran rejects Western accusations that it is seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons. But its refusal so far to curb its program and lack of full openness with U.N. anti-proliferation inspectors have drawn tough Western sanctions.
Rouhani, a pragmatist, succeeded conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August promising to try to settle the decade-old nuclear dispute and secure an easing of sanctions that have severely hurt Iran's oil-dependent economy.
No enrichment halt
Iran and six world powers - the United States, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and China - edged close to a preliminary nuclear accord during negotiations at the weekend and decided to meet again there on Nov. 20.
They want Iran to halt its most sensitive nuclear fuel-making work and take other measures as part of a confidence-building deal that would buy time for negotiations on a more far-reaching diplomatic settlement.
A senior Iranian lawmaker last month said Iran had halted its 20 percent uranium enrichment - a move that would meet a main demand of the powers negotiating with Tehran - but another parliamentarian later contradicted that.
Iran's enrichment of uranium to levels of 20 percent is controversial as it is a relatively short technical step to increase that to the 90 percent required for making a nuclear warhead. Iran says it needs the 20 percent material to fuel a medical research reactor in Tehran.
Asked whether Iran was continuing the higher-grade enrichment work, Amano said: “That's right.”
One the one hand, he said when asked about the Iranian nuclear program, “there has not been that big change. On the other hand, activities which are not allowed (under a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend all enrichment) are continuing”.
Iran says it is refining uranium to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants. But if enriched much further, uranium can also provide the core of a nuclear bomb.