IAEA chief: Iran refuses to answer key nuclear questions

UNITED NATIONS — Even as it faces the threat of new U.N. sanctions, Iran is refusing to discuss its alleged military-related research or provide data on new uranium enrichment plants it plans to build — preventing the U.N. nuclear watchdog from verifying that Tehran isn't seeking nuclear weapons — the agency chief said Wednesday.

"I haven't got the indications of positive change," International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano told McClatchy. "It is for me time to continue to seek cooperation from Iran. Cooperation means taking concrete steps."

"The situation hasn't changed since my previous report," he said in an interview.

Amano was referring to a Feb. 18 assessment he submitted to the agency's 35-nation board of governors. It said that while IAEA inspectors had not detected illicit diversions of nuclear materials, the inspectors couldn't confirm that all Iranian nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes.

His comments amounted to a preview of a report that he is to submit in several weeks to the Vienna-based board of governors. They were in sharp contrast to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's assertions at the U.N. on Monday that suspicions about his regime's program are unjustified.

Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat who was elected to head the U.N. agency in December, indicated that he doesn't think Tehran will fully disclose its past and present nuclear activities — as required by its IAEA nuclear safeguards agreement — unless it feels additional international pressure.

"The IAEA is designed to implement safeguards. In this case, without a policy change on the part of Iran, we cannot do our work effectively. Policy change is needed," he said. "The IAEA is not designed primarily to change the policy of member states. In this area, influence, persuasion by interested countries is needed. There is a role to be played by the United Nations.

"Certainly we will continue to seek more cooperation with Iran. But only a synergy of effort by IAEA, the United Nations and interested countries would produce positive results," Amano continued.

He added that IAEA inspectors continue to monitor Iran's known nuclear facilities. They include the main uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and the small but incomplete underground Fordow enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom that was hidden from the IAEA until the U.S. and Britain disclosed its existence in September.

Amano and Ahmadinejad were at the U.N. for this week's opening of a nearly month-long conference of 189 nations on bolstering the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The pact is the cornerstone of the global system to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons that the IAEA was in part created to oversee. Its mission also helps poorer nations develop nuclear technology for peaceful uses, including energy and medical research.

The conference comes in the midst of negotiations among the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany on a fourth round of sanctions that the U.N. Security Council is expected to slap on Iran for defying U.N. orders to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Enrichment involves spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at supersonic speeds in thousands of machines called centrifuges. It produces low-enriched uranium fuel for power plants or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, depending on the duration of the process.

Iran insists that it's producing power plant fuel, but western governments contend that the program, based on technology sold by a Pakistani-led smuggling ring and hidden from the IAEA for 18 years, is part of a secret weapons development program.

Amano said that Tehran still refuses to answer questions on several issues. One concerns a document that the IAEA found in Iran's possession that relates to the milling of uranium metal into a sphere, which can only be used for a nuclear weapon. The IAEA says the document originated with the smuggling ring. Others relate to the military's role in the nuclear program and information the IAEA obtained on weapons-related studies, which Iran allegedly conducted after 2004.

"In essence they say that the pieces of information that we have are forged and baseless," Amano said.

The studies are said to include work on developing a nuclear payload for a missile warhead and spherical implosion system, comprising conventional high explosives, that's used to trigger a nuclear explosion.

The IAEA is also waiting for Iran to provide details — as required by its safeguards agreement — about 10 additional uranium enrichment plants that Ahmadinejad announced in December would be built, Amano said.

Iranian officials said that construction of two plants would start in the first half of the new Iranian year, which began in March. The announcement, however, was greeted with doubt in the West because of Iran's serious financial problems.

Asked if he was concerned that Iran is secretly constructing additional uranium enrichment facilities, Amano replied, "We don't know. And 'we don't know' is the problem."


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