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US Expresses Concern over Iran's Nuclear Program

The United States reiterated its concern Monday about Iran's self-described "peaceful" nuclear program, which it said is not needed by such an energy-rich country and appears to cover for an effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

The United States has long been concerned by Iranian nuclear activities. But the worry has been heightened by the revelation that Iran is building a massive uranium enrichment plant near the town of Natanz in the central part of the country.

An Iranian opposition group exposed the existence of the plant last August with the release of commercial satellite photos of the Natanz site and another facility being built to process domestically mined uranium ore.

Details of the Natanz plant have begun to trickle out following a visit to the facility by officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, last month. The Washington Post reported Monday that when the plant is completed in two years, it will have five thousand uranium-refining centrifuges and be capable of turning out enough enriched uranium to make several nuclear bombs each year.

In a weekend television interview, Secretary of State Colin Powell said new information has led U.S. authorities believe that Iran has a "far more robust program" for nuclear weapons development than previously though. At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Iran's efforts until recently to conceal the Natanz plant can only add to suspicion about its nuclear intentions. "There is no economic justification for a state that is so rich in oil and gas, like Iran, to build these hugely expensive nuclear fuel cycle facilities," he said. "Iran flares off more gas every year than they would ever get from these reactors that they're talking about building. States with peaceful nuclear energy programs have nothing to hide, and nothing to hide from the international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran has done its best to hide these other nuclear fuel cycle activities."

U.S. concerns have largely been focussed on the nuclear power plant Iran is completing with Russian technical help at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, which officials say would provide Iran with technical expertise for the weapons effort.

Spokesman Boucher said Iran agreed that Russia would provide all the fuel needed for the life of Bushehr plant and take back any spent fuel, and that is another reason why it does not need an enrichment facility. He said the United States continues diplomatic contacts with the IAEA, Russia and other potential supplier countries for the Iranian nuclear program, to make sure, as he put it "that everyone is vigilant with regard to Iran."

In a statement Monday, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said his country's nuclear activities are "transparent and peaceful in nature" and suggested recent U.S. comments are aimed at undermining Iranian cooperation with the IAEA.

To buttress its case, Iran planned to give foreign news media access to the Bushehr plant site on Tuesday. The plant has been under construction in fits and starts since before Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.