WASHINGTON—Iran has begun restricting U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear program and wants seals and surveillance cameras removed from key sites by midmonth, a confidential IAEA report said Monday.
The Iranian decision will drastically inhibit the most effective international mechanism for monitoring Iran's work on uranium enrichment and ensuring that it's used only for producing fuel for power plants and not for nuclear weapons.
Moreover, it will be much more difficult for the IAEA to answer crucial questions about the Iranian program, including whether it purchased a blueprint for a nuclear warhead from a Pakistani-led black-market smuggling ring.
"This is Iran escalating," said David Albright, a former IAEA inspector who directs the Institute for Science and International Security, an independent research center that closely tracks the Iranian nuclear program.
The decision by Iran, the world's fourth-largest petroleum producer, wasn't unexpected, but it still sent international oil prices higher, before they settled back to more than $65 a barrel.
It came two days after the 35-member IAEA board of governors overwhelmingly voted to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for failing for three years to disclose all aspects of its nuclear program to agency inspectors.
The Security Council can impose economic and political sanctions, but it won't consider what action to take until next month, providing an opportunity for Iran to reach a diplomatic resolution.
A state-run English-language Iranian Internet news site quoted Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, as saying Monday that the regime remained open to dialogue.
Iran says its program is strictly for peaceful purposes, but it acknowledges hiding its nuclear project—including its dealings with the Pakistani-led smuggling network—from IAEA inspectors for 18 years.
The United States and its European allies suspect that Iran's civilian program is a cover for a covert military-run effort to develop nuclear weapons.
Knight Ridder obtained a copy of the confidential report. In it, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei told the board of governors that Iran had informed the agency in a letter a day earlier that effective immediately it no longer would abide by an accord known as the Additional Protocol.
The Additional Protocol, which Tehran agreed to observe even though the Iranian Parliament never ratified it, gave the IAEA broad access to Iran's civilian nuclear facilities, including inspections with two hours' notice.
Now the agency will have to arrange the timing and location of inspections with Iran.
A U.S. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said Iran's decision to stop abiding by the Additional Protocol meant that IAEA experts no longer could monitor the output of two uranium mines and activities at related facilities.
IAEA inspectors also won't be able to keep an eye on components for several thousand centrifuges—devices that spin uranium hexafluoride gas into enriched uranium—that are stored at Natanz, a key research facility in central Iran. Highly enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons.
"The IAEA ... won't know where these thousands of centrifuge components are," Albright said. "If you move them out from where inspectors can go, you can much more easily build a centrifuge plant in secret."
The Bush administration appeared restrained in its reaction to the Iranian decisions.
"They are headed in the opposite direction from where the world wants them, but let's see what the next weeks bring," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
ElBaradei's report said Iran's demand to remove surveillance cameras and seals from equipment by mid-February and reduce the number of inspectors in Iran was made in a letter that the IAEA received Sunday from E. Khalilipur, the vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
"All voluntarily suspended non-legally binding measures including the provisions of the Additional Protocol and even beyond that will be suspended," ElBaradei's report said.
The reference to "voluntarily suspended non-legally binding measures" may include a threatened move to develop industrial-scale uranium enrichment. Iran had warned that it would stop abiding by the Additional Protocol and develop industrial-scale enrichment if it was reported to the Security Council.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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