WASHINGTON—The United States will seek tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran for defying a Security Council demand to suspend uranium enrichment, U.S. officials said Thursday. But it was unclear whether Russia or China, which hold Security Council vetoes, will go along.
U.S. officials disclosed the latest move after the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, said Iran was expanding an industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility and continuing to build the Arak heavy water reactor.
The United States and its European allies believe that Iran's uranium enrichment program is part of a secret effort to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran insists that the program is aimed at generating electrical power. There is ambiguity, because the same process that produces low-enriched uranium for power plants also produces highly enriched uranium fuel used in nuclear weapons.
A renewed drive for sanctions almost certainly will ratchet up tensions that are already rising following U.S. charges that Iranian-supplied weapons have cost hundreds of American troops in Iraq their lives.
Britain announced that it would support tougher sanctions, but there was no word from Russia and China on whether they would drop their earlier objections to stronger measures.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran would "never" abandon its nuclear program, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
A Dec. 23 Security Council resolution demanded an immediate suspension of the enrichment work and the construction of the Arak reactor, slapped a ban on transfers of nuclear know-how and technology to Iran, and froze the assets of 22 Iranian officials and institutions associated with the nuclear program.
Iranian compliance would end the restrictions and open the door to trade and other economic incentives and to direct talks with the United States.
But the IAEA said that Iran has continued running a pilot uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and has installed hundreds of centrifuges—machines that spin uranium hexafluoride gas into enriched uranium—in an underground industrial-size facility.
Iranian officials told the IAEA that they planned to have thousands of machines operating by May, and they refused to allow IAEA inspectors to install remote monitoring equipment in the underground facility.
Iran also continued construction of the Arak reactor, which it says will be for making radioactive isotopes for medical research. But the reactor also will be able to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, the IAEA report said.
Iran also has persisted in its refusal to answer questions about key aspects of the program that the IAEA must have answered before it can certify Tehran's claim that the program is for peaceful purposes.
"Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities," IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei said in the report to the agency's 35-member board and the Security Council. "Without . . . cooperation and transparency, the agency will not be able to provide assurances about . . . the exclusively peaceful nature of that program."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey called Iran's refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment work "another missed opportunity . . . to not only engage with the international community but to really do the right thing by its people."
The United States plans to seek tighter sanctions and has been discussing options informally with Security Council members for more than a week, three U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the diplomacy.
Measures sought by the Bush administration may include a ban on international travel on some Iranian officials, the U.S. officials said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue Thursday in Berlin with her German, Russian and European Union counterparts. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns is to attend a meeting in London on Monday with British, French, German, Chinese and Russian officials.
The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the deputy chief of Iran's nuclear organization, Mohammed Saeedi, as saying that the U.N. demands violated the country's right to peaceful nuclear energy under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the international effort to control the spread of nuclear weapons.
U.S. and European officials point out that Iran kept its program hidden from the IAEA for 18 years and bought know-how and technology—including bomb-related materials—from a smuggling ring led by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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