Russia, France Voice Skepticism About Iran's Nuclear Claims

Tuesday, April 10th 2007, 9:19 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ Russia voiced skepticism Tuesday about Iran's announcement of a dramatic expansion of its uranium enrichment program, saying it had yet to receive confirmation of the claim from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

France and Australia also questioned Iran's claim of acquiring an industrial-scale nuclear fuel production capability.

Two U.N. inspectors have arrived in Iran to visit its uranium enrichment plant, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. An official of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization confirmed their arrival, and said the visit was ``routine.'' The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Iran said Monday it has begun operating 3,000 centrifuges _ nearly 10 times the previously known number _ in defiance of U.N. demands that it halt its nuclear program or face increased sanctions. The United States, Britain, France and others criticized the announcement.

Russia was unaware, however, of ``any recent technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear program that would change the format of its enrichment effort,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement. The Russian government helped built Iran's only nuclear reactor and knows its nuclear program well.

``We haven't got a confirmation yet that they have actually begun uranium enrichment at the new cascades'' of centrifuges, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei also questioned the Iranian claim, saying Tuesday ``there are announcements, and then there is technological reality.''

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer voiced similar doubts about Iran's ability to produce substantial quantities of enriched uranium: ``Now I'm not sure if that is true or not.''

On Monday, analysts said the claims seemed questionable.

David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector, said ``it would be very hard to believe'' that Iran has been able to enlarge its centrifuge cascade so dramatically. ``It all hinges on whether Iran will be able to get the machines working together'' at a constant rate.

Iran is known to have had 328 centrifuges operating at its Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran. For months, it has been saying it plans to launch an expanded program of 3,000, likely to be set up in a large underground area at Natanz to protect them from air strikes.

In the enrichment process, uranium gas is pumped into centrifuges, which spin and purify the gas. Enriched to a low degree, the result is fuel for a reactor, but to a high degree it creates material for a nuclear warhead.

The United States and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.

U.S. experts say 3,000 centrifuges are, in theory, enough to produce a nuclear weapon, perhaps within a year. But they doubted Iran had so many of them operational, a difficult technical feat given the country's patchy success with a much smaller number.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed Monday that his nation had ``joined the nuclear club of nations and can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale'' _ comments suggesting Iran was able to produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear reactor consistently. Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh said that Iran would install 50,000 centrifuges.

``We have heard the Iranian president's statement and have adopted a serious attitude to what is going on in relation to the Iranian nuclear program,'' Lavrov said Tuesday. ``But we would like to proceed from facts, not from emotional political gestures.''

Kamynin, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, on Tuesday urged Tehran to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and voiced concern about the latest Iranian statements. ``Iran's threat to walk out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has caused a particular concern,'' he said.

Kamynin added that his government had asked the IAEA for its assessment of the Iranian claim and was awaiting a response.

Russia has close economic ties with Iran and is building its first nuclear power plant in the southern port of Bushehr.

Russia, however, has delayed Bushehr's launch that had been earlier set for September and refused to ship uranium fuel for the reactor, citing Iran's payment arrears. Iranian officials denied any payment delays and accused Russia of caving in to Western pressure.

Russia and China joined the rest of the U.N. Security Council last month in voting to impose new sanctions _ the second set of penalties in three months against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. The sanctions included the banning of Iranian arms exports and the freezing of assets of 28 people and organizations involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

Iran rejected the sanctions and announced a partial suspension of cooperation with the IAEA.