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US Cites New Concerns Over Iran's Nuclear Power Program

The United States says it has "very grave concerns" that Iran is using its supposedly-peaceful nuclear program as a pretext to advance a nuclear weapons program. The comments follow a statement by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami Sunday that Iran has begun mining uranium.

The Iranian president coupled his statements on the uranium mining project with renewed assertions that Iran is only interested in uranium for power-generation, and that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

However, Bush administration officials say the disclosure enhances the long-held U.S. view that Iran has an "ambitious" secret program to develop nuclear weapons.

President Khatami announced Sunday that Iran has begun mining uranium deposits near the central Iranian city of Yazd, and that the country was building two plants for refining the ore and producing fuel for nuclear power stations, including the one nearing completion with Russian help at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast.

At a State Department briefing, Spokesman Richard Boucher dismissed an Iranian suggestion that Tehran was mining its own uranium for cost considerations, and said the project would be contrary to the key understanding that Russia would control the uranium fuel for the lifetime of the Bushehr reactor.

"Mining is not necessarily cheaper, and it puts a goodly part of the nuclear fuel cycle outside of the control of whoever is providing the reactor and the fuel. The agreement as we understood it, as we heard it from others, has been that Russia would provide the fuel, and take it back after it was used in the reactor. If you have Iran pursuing a complete nuclear fuel cycle, that would only make sense in the context of a weapons program," he said.

Some accounts of the Khatami remarks say he also asserted that Iran planned to reprocess spent fuel from Bushehr. Mr. Boucher said, if true, that would directly contradict Iran's agreement with Russia, and "lay bare Iran's ambitious desire" to develop nuclear weapons.

The Iranian announcement comes two weeks before the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, is to visit Iran to inspect that country's nuclear program, including two sites an Iranian dissident group said last August were part of a secret weapons effort.

Mr. Boucher said the United States hopes Iran will cooperate with Mr. el-Baradei, and will make good on its claims of transparency for its nuclear program by accepting and fully implementing IAEA safeguards.

The Bush administration has been pressing Moscow to end its role in the Bushehr project, which is due for completion at the end of this year, and which U.S. officials say is being used by Iran as a pretext for obtaining sensitive technologies to advance its weapons program.

Mr. Boucher said U.S. diplomatic efforts on the issue will continue.