U.S., Allies Look To Challenge Iran Over Refusal To Allow Nuclear Monitoring

Thursday, March 29th 2007, 7:48 am
By: News On 6

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ The United States and key allies are pressing the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency to find Iran in violation of its commitments to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty over Tehran's refusal to allow remote monitoring of its underground uranium enrichment plant, diplomats said Thursday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has itself increased the pressure on Iran, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because their information was confidential.

The diplomats, who are accredited or otherwise linked to the agency, told The Associated Press that a senior IAEA official had recently told the Iranians to accept an agency request for additional cameras at the Natanz enrichment site by the end of this week.

At issue is Tehran's refusal to allow the agency comprehensive monitoring of its expanding enrichment program at Natanz, where it has linked up hundreds of centrifuges meant to produce material that can be used to generate nuclear energy _ or produce the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

Iran insists its nuclear program has only peaceful intentions, but the U.S. and some of its allies suspect it is a cover for building weapons. The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions on the country for its refusal to suspend its enrichment program.

In a February report to the 35-nation IAEA board and the Security Council, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran ``declined to agree'' to his agency's call for remote monitoring of the facility, including the use of cameras.

A compromise was reached in which IAEA inspectors were allowed increased access to the plant, but the agency said that remote monitoring would have to be implemented once 500 centrifuges had been installed at Natanz.

The agency's request for a positive response from Iran was made by Olli Heinonen, the IAEA deputy director general of the Iran file. Diplomats said he made a written request and was following up verbally in stronger terms.

It was unclear whether Heinonen's move was prompted by concerns that Iran was approaching the 500-centrifuge limit stated in ElBaradei's report.

While the number of centrifuges that are partially or totally assembled underground at Natanz is thought to have exceeded that number, some agency officials argue that the definition of 500 assembled centrifuges means that the machines are hooked up in series and running _ although not necessarily enriching material. One Western diplomat said that stage had not yet been reached.

Still, the United States, the strongest proponent of tough sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, was already sounding out other board nations about their readiness to find Tehran in violation of agreements linked to the Nonproliferation Treaty, said the diplomats.

Agency experts were withholding judgment, pending examination of agreements signed by Iran to see if its refusal to allow installation of extra cameras giving a full overview of its Natanz operations violated the treaty, they said.

A full picture of the Natanz operations is important to enable the agency to ascertain what grade of enriched uranium the plant will be producing. Low-level enriched uranium is used to generate power _ which Iran asserts is its only goal. But with minor modifications, such plants can also produce weapons-grade uranium.

Three of seven diplomats commenting on the issue said that Gregory L. Schulte, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, had sounded out more than a dozen board countries on whether they would support a special session Iran's refusal to instal additional cameras.

The idea was strongly supported by Australia and to a less vocal extent by the British and French, they said. But other nations argued such a meeting would no make sense unless the Iranians were found in violation of their Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments, persuading Schulte to at least postpone the push.

U.S. mission spokesman Matthew Boland said that while Washington had ``not requested a special meeting of the board on this subject,'' the mission was ``closely monitoring developments related to Iran's nuclear activities and is in regular consultations with other missions.''