UN: Iran expands uranium efforts, is blocking monitoring

WASHINGTON — Iran has expanded its uranium enrichment program and is impeding United Nations monitoring of its enrichment program, a confidential U.N. report said Friday.

The actions suggest that Iran is proceeding full speed ahead despite President Barack Obama's offer of unconditional talks on ending the effort, which is widely suspected to be aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran is now operating 4,920 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium from uranium hexafluoride gas, in a massive underground facility at Natanz. That represents an increase of some 1,000 devices since February. Another 2,132 devices are undergoing vacuum testing prior to being fed uranium hexafluoride gas, it said.

Iran has refused to take actions required to "exclude the possibility of military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," said the report to the IAEA board of governors, which was made available by the Institute for Science and International Security, an independent research organization.

The report also said that Iran is refusing to support an IAEA investigation into past nuclear weapons-related research activities and is impeding monitoring of the construction of a heavy water research reactor. At the same time, IAEA inspectors had been able to account for all of Iran's nuclear materials.

The U.N. Security Council has passed four resolutions, three of which imposed sanctions on Iran, to back its demand for a suspension of the uranium enrichment program that Iran had concealed from the IAEA for 18 years.

The IAEA reports, coming a day after Obama called for an end to the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the U.S. and Muslim nations, highlighted an issue that promises to make any progress difficult.

In his speech to the Muslim world Thursday, Obama reiterated an offer he made after he took office of unconditional talks with Iran on its disputes with the U.S. They include Tehran's rejection of the Security Council resolutions demanding a suspension of its uranium enrichment program.

Iran insists that it's producing low-enriched uranium fuel for power plants. Western officials charge that Iran is developing the ability to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, pointing out that the country lacks enough uranium deposits and reactors to make low-enriched uranium production economically viable.

Plutonium and highly enriched uranium — or HEU — are used as the explosive fuel for nuclear weapons. Plutonium and low-enriched uranium — or LEU — is used to fuel nuclear power plants.

The report said that Iran has also boosted production of low-enriched uranium by 1,100 pounds, bringing its total stock of LEU to nearly 3,000 pounds, which is sufficient to produce enough HEU for one nuclear weapon.

Before that could be done, however, Iranian technicians would have to reconfigure the Natanz facility to produce HEU, work that would be detected by IAEA inspectors stationed at the site as soon as it begins.

Michael Adler of the Woodrow Wilson Center, an independent research organization in Washington, said Iran is likely to press on with the program whether or not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wins re-election this month.

"When you speak to Iranians, they are amazed that people are not getting their message that they are doing nothing wrong, there is no proof that they are seeking weapons and they ask, 'Why are people still questioning our nuclear program?'" Adler said.

In a separate report, the U.N. watchdog agency said that Syria has been impeding an IAEA probe into what the U.S. charges was a secret plutonium-production reactor that Israel destroyed in an air strike in September 2007.

Syria denies that the facility was a reactor. The report, however, said that Syria has failed to provide sufficient information to substantiate its claim, and it called on Damascus "to be more cooperative and transparent."

The report said that U.N. monitors also found during a routine inspection of a known research facility particles of a type of chemically treated uranium that Syria has not declared to the IAEA.

"The presence and origin of such particles . . . needs to be understood," it said.


The new U.N. reports