WASHINGTON—Iran on Tuesday resumed nuclear research that will include enriching small amounts of uranium, a process used to make nuclear weapons, defying calls by the United States, Europe, Russia and China to maintain a 26-month freeze.
Iran's move raised the likelihood that the International Atomic Energy Agency will report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the keystone of the global system to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
The Security Council can slap economic sanctions on Iran, an approach long favored by the Bush administration. The IAEA, the international nuclear monitoring body, says that Iran has failed to disclose all aspects of its nuclear program, which relied on an international black market.
Iranian leaders apparently are gambling that Russia and China will veto any U.S.-led drive for U.N. sanctions. Both China and Russia have substantial financial interests in oil-rich Iran.
Iran insists its program is for civilian purposes. The Bush administration charges it is developing a nuclear arsenal.
"If the regime in Iran continues on the current course and fails to abide by its international obligations, there is no other choice but to refer the matter to the Security Council," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Iran's resumption of nuclear research was a "very, very ominous move," German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin. He added that in doing so, Iran had "crossed a line which they knew would not be without consequences."
Germany, France and Britain led a European negotiation with Iran seeking to persuade Iran not to continue with uranium enrichment and to agree to safeguards that would ensure that its program couldn't be used for military purposes.
Iran suspended its nuclear fuel research in November 2004 as it pursued the negotiations with the three European countries.
Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of international affairs of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency as saying that Iran is resuming research and will not produce uranium fuel.
"We differentiate between nuclear fuel production with research and access to technology," he said.
But U.S. and European officials rejected the Iranian effort to play down its actions.
"There is no good reason why Iran should have taken this step if its intentions are truly peaceful and it wanted to resolve longstanding international concerns," British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said in a statement.
The IAEA has said that while it has found no evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program, it can't certify that its program is only for civilian purposes.
The IAEA statement quoted the agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, as saying that the agency had been studying Iran's program for three years, but still had questions about its "scope and nature" due to "the less than full and prompt transparency on the part of Iran."
Russia and China joined the United States and its European allies on Monday in urging Tehran not to make good on a Jan. 3 announcement that it would restart its nuclear fuel research program.
Despite Iran's defiance, Russia and China remained reluctant to take the matter to the Security Council, said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The United States and the European Union would like the 35-member IAEA board of governors to refer the matter to the Security Council at an emergency meeting during the week of Jan. 23 and will work over the coming days to persuade Moscow and Beijing to support it, he said.
With IAEA inspectors looking on, Iranian engineers removed seals that the U.N. agency placed more than two years ago on enrichment-related equipment and materials at several sites, including the main enrichment center of Natanz in central Iran. The equipment included centrifuges used to enrich uranium.
Iranian experts told the IAEA that they plan to feed uranium hexafluoride gas into experimental network of centrifuges "for research purposes," the IAEA said. "According to Iran, the intended scale ... is small."
Experts say the test network is a vastly scaled-down version of industrial-scale plants that produce low enriched uranium to run nuclear power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Iran, however, is building massive underground halls capable of holding an industrial-scale network of 50,000 centrifuges.
Iran insists that it has the right as an Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory to enrich uranium. At the same time, it has admitted concealing its program for nearly two decades from IAEA monitoring as required by the treaty.
The crisis comes amid growing tensions over alleged Iranian interference in Iraq, its support for radical Islamic Palestinian factions and recent comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
Iran has warned that it will expel IAEA inspectors if it is referred to the Security Council, eliminating the most effective means of monitoring its nuclear program.
The crisis also has raised fears that the United States or Israel could launch a military operation to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities.
McClellan noted that Bush "said previously Iran is not Iraq. We are working with the international community to resolve this in a peaceful and diplomatic manner."
At the same time, he recalled that "in terms of options ... the president's made it clear we never take options off the table."
Experts have said that it would be extremely difficult to mount an attack to destroy the widely dispersed Iranian nuclear facilities and that Iran could retaliate by sponsoring terrorist strikes on U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The IAEA board of governors approved a resolution in November declaring Iran's program "illegal and illogical."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Warren P. Strobel in Washington and Matthew Schofield in Berlin contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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