IAEA 'Taken Aback' by Speed of Iran's Nuclear Program

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INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY Agency (IAEA) officials were "taken aback" by the advanced state of an Iranian gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility at a complex at Natanz during a February visit, according to a U.S. State Department official interviewed March 20. This revelation fueled concerns that Iran might be violating its nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei confirmed in a March 17 report that he visited the site, which includes a nearly completed gas centrifuge "pilot plant" designed to enrich uranium, in February. (See ACT, March 2003.) The director-general had previously acknowledged the existence of the pilot plant shortly after his February visit, but details have emerged only in the last month indicating the advanced state of the facility.

The State Department official said ElBaradei observed approximately 164 centrifuges operating in a cascade at the pilot plant, along with parts to assemble approximately 1,000 more for a larger uranium-enrichment facility still under construction.

The State Department official also said that Washington and the IAEA believe Iran might have introduced nuclear material into centrifuges at another location in order to test them, because Tehran would not have invested in a large and sophisticated facility without sufficient testing. Such activity would violate Iran's safeguards agreement with the IAEA, an IAEA official confirmed in a March 25 interview. Safeguards agreements allow the IAEA to monitor the nuclear facilities belonging to a nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) member-state.

No nuclear material was in the centrifuges at the Natanz facility at the time of ElBaradei's visit, the State Department official said.

The advanced state of the facility proves Iran has a "far more robust nuclear weapons development program" than has been publicly known, Secretary of State Colin Powell said during a March 9 appearance on CNN's "Late Edition."

The State Department official said that Washington's current policy is to allow the IAEA to continue its investigation, emphasizing that the "credibility of the safeguards regime is at risk." ElBaradei said in his March 17 report that the agency is discussing with Tehran "a number of safeguards issues that need to be clarified, and actions that need to be taken."

Iran first informed the IAEA of the uranium-enrichment facility in September 2002, ElBaradei said in his report. Powell revealed during the March 9 interview that the United States provided the IAEA with intelligence about the site, but he did not specify when.

Iran Accelerates Nuclear Activities

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami sparked additional concern about Iran's nuclear capabilities when he announced shortly before ElBaradei's visit that Iran has started mining uranium and is developing the facilities for a complete nuclear fuel cycle.

Earlier this month, Iran indicated that it is accelerating its nuclear activities. The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported March 3 that Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani announced that Iran would begin operating a plant located near Isfahan that converts uranium oxide to uranium hexafluoride, an essential component of the nuclear fuel cycle. Rowhani said March 3 that the facility is now complete, according to a March 14 Iranian state television broadcast. …