Iran answers some, but not all, questions about its nuclear program

BERLIN — Iran has answered more questions about the history of its nuclear program, but is still restricting access to its current nuclear work and expanding its enrichment of uranium in defiance of the U.N. Security Council, a U.N. watchdog agency reported Thursday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran hasn't provided "full transparency" about its current activities and now has nearly 3,000 operating centrifuges — the number required to produce in one year enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

The report, distributed to member states of the IAEA on Thursday and made available to reporters, could be a turning point in the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program, which the Bush administration charges is aimed at developing a weapon.

After the report's release, the United States pledged to move ahead with an effort to impose additional economic sanctions on Iran. Other countries, notably China and Russia, oppose that course of action, and are expected to argue that the report represents progress in uncovering Iran's nuclear secrets.

One IAEA official said that judgments about the report, completing a two-month process launched by the IAEA director Mohamad ElBaradei despite criticism from the United States, are "clearly a matter of perspective: The glass is both half full and half empty."

The Bush administration appeared to view the glass as half, if not completely, empty.

White House spokesperson Dana Perino said the U.S. will work with the U.N. Security Council toward a third set of sanctions against Iran.

"This report sadly makes clear that Iran seems uninterested in working with the rest of the world," she said.

U.S. officials largely dismissed the report that Iran has cooperated in clearing up uncertainties about the history of its nuclear development, focusing instead on the report's acknowledgement that Iran is continuing to enrich uranium in defiance of U.N. Security Council demands.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack attempted to highlight the report's warning that the IAEA's knowledge of Iran's current nuclear activities is dwindling.

The United States is trying to schedule a meeting with senior envoys from Britain, China, France, Germany and France to discuss a new U.N. sanctions resolution, McCormack said.

But the report may have dimmed prospects for additional sanctions, and the administration Thursday pointed the finger at China. "There has been a dragging of feet by the Chinese . . . to come to an agreement on a new resolution as quickly as possible," said U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad.

Britain took a slightly less negative tack, saying the report would be studied carefully. It expressed hope for progress during upcoming talks between European Union head Javier Solana and Iran.

"If Javier Solana's talks with the Iranians do not show a positive outcome, and as the IAEA report now shows that Iran has still not addressed several issues about its nuclear program, we will pursue further Security Council and EU sanctions," the Foreign Office said. "If Iran wants to restore trust in its program, it must come clean on all outstanding issues without delay."

New Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said in Vienna that the report showed Iran had come clean. In fact, he said that Iran believes it's taken the wind out of the accusations against his country.

"It clarifies many of the ambiguities that were raised. Accordingly certain measures that were taken, such as referring Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council, are no longer valid," he said.

The IAEA didn't comment on the report, which was assembled by Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.

U.N. officials close to the investigation, who couldn't be named because they weren't authorized to speak, said they were baffled by the negative reaction of the U.S., U.K. and France, calling the report an indication of "substantial progress in only two months. Iran has clearly changed gears as far as explaining their activities."

However, the report also notes that Iran now has 2,952 operational enrichment centrifuges in 18 linked cascades. The report notes that in the past year Iran has fed 2,700 pounds of uranium gas (UF6) into the cascades, less than the expected capacity of the system. The IAEA said that, as of Nov. 5, Iran had produced 266 tons of UF6, all of which remains under IAEA supervision.

The report says that while Iran reports having enriched Uranium-235 to 4.8 percent — far below the 90 percent enrichment needed for weapons grade uranium, but enough for power generation — inspectors could find no evidence of anything beyond 4 percent U-235.

Still, experts consider 3,000 fully functioning and cascaded centrifuges to be a turning point, the number at which enough highly enriched uranium can be produced in one year to arm a nuclear weapon.

(Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed.)