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Rice warns Iran to back off plans to restart research on nuclear fuel

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Iran on Thursday not to restart research and development work on uranium fuel, which can be used in nuclear weapons, and signaled that U.S. patience with European-led talks on containing Iran's nuclear program was all but at an end.

Rice's comments came after Iranian officials canceled a meeting in Vienna, Austria, at which they were to have told the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency which aspects of their uranium-fuel effort they planned to resume after a suspension of more than two years.

Western officials and experts are concerned that Iran will resume assembling and testing centrifuges, high-speed machines that produce low-enriched uranium for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Should Iranian scientists and engineers restart centrifuge work or other activities related to uranium enrichment, the IAEA almost certainly would send the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions.

It isn't clear whether the council initially would do anything more than haggle over whether to hold Iran in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the global system designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. North Korea was referred to the council for violating the treaty in February 2003 but no action has been taken against the reclusive Stalinist regime.

Still, Iran's referral to the council could stoke tensions that are already high over its nuclear program and over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent statements denying the Holocaust and calling for the destruction of Israel.

Among other measures, Iran is threatening to expel IAEA inspectors, which would eliminate the most effective means of international monitoring.

Rice said Iran would be showing that it wasn't serious about a diplomatic resolution of its nuclear program if it made good on its announcement this week that it would resume suspended uranium-fuel research and development work Monday.

"They shouldn't do it, because it really will be a sign that they're not prepared ... to actually make the diplomacy work," Rice said.

She indicated that Washington was losing confidence in the unproductive negotiations that Britain, France and Germany have conducted on measures that Iran could take to guarantee that its nuclear program is restricted to peaceful purposes.

"We have always said that if we're not able to get satisfaction somehow through a negotiated route that diplomacy will continue in a different form," Rice said, referring to the Bush administration's threat to refer Iran to the Security Council.

She pointed out that a resolution is sitting before the IAEA's board of governors to send the matter to the council and asserted that "we have the votes."

"I will not give you a timeline on when that's going to happen, but I do think that the Iranians are digging their own hole of isolation deeper and deeper," Rice said.

The Bush administration charges that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. This week it placed sanctions on two Iranian firms that it contends have been involved in the covert program.

Iran says its nuclear program is for producing electricity and other civilian uses and claims it has the right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to have enrichment technology.

Tehran has admitted concealing its enrichment efforts from IAEA inspectors for nearly 20 years, contrary to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and agreed to suspend those efforts in October 2003 to reassure the agency that it wasn't making nuclear weapons.

On Tuesday, Iran informed the IAEA in writing that it would resume suspended uranium-fuel activities next Monday, but gave no further details.

Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokeswoman, said a high-level Iranian delegation was to have provided the details Thursday to the agency's director, Mohamed ElBaradei. But after informing the agency that they'd be late, the Iranians called to say they wouldn't be coming, she said.

"It would be expected that they would provide us with advanced information on what they planned to restart so that we would know where to have our inspectors in place on Monday," she said.

There was no immediate explanation from Iran for the cancellation.

Experts are paying close attention to activities at a key facility in Natanz, in central Iran, to see whether Iran resumes assembling and testing centrifuges.

David Albright, who served as an IAEA inspector in Iraq, said that before the suspension of enrichment-related activities, engineers had nearly completed a test network, or cascade, of 164 centrifuges.

It would take them about six months to put the cascade into operation if work on it resumes next week, said Albright, the head of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan research center.

"If they learned to operate that successfully, they could build larger cascades. Then they could build a plant with several thousand cascades," he said. "If they had 1,500 to 2,000 centrifuges of this type, that is enough to make enough HEU (highly enriched uranium) for one bomb per year."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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