Iran announced Tuesday that it would resume nuclear fuel research next week, provoking new concern from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency and nations, including the United States, that are convinced Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons.
Iran delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday saying its nuclear body planned to resume research and development on its "peaceful nuclear energy program" on Jan. 9, ending a voluntary suspension of such activities since late 2003. In August, Iran restarted its work on the process to convert raw uranium into gas, and Tuesday's announcement was seen by some as an inflammatory effort to raise the stakes before another round of talks with European diplomats on Jan. 18.
"It has all the makings of another crisis," said a Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations. "Step by step, they are moving towards their goal. When will the Europeans say enough is enough?"
The letter did not specify what kind of research activities would be restarted, and IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has asked Iran for clarification. In September, the nuclear agency's board of governors passed a resolution warning Iran that resumption of any enrichment and reprocessing activities would open the door to punitive action. Enrichment of the gas produces nuclear fuel that can be used in a civilian reactor or as material for a bomb.
The deputy chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said Tuesday that the activities would not include enrichment of uranium at this time. "That will be a separate issue on which no decision has been made," Mohammed Saeedi told Iranian state television.
Iranian officials this week asked the IAEA to remove seals and cameras from a nuclear facility at Natanz to allow work to resume. The U.N. agency had installed them when Iran agreed to the suspension.
Although the work at Natanz may not prove to be a technical violation, Western diplomats who have been negotiating to keep Iran's nuclear program in check view the announcement as provocative. Both U.S. and European diplomats reacted sharply to Iran's statement.
At a routine briefing Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted the IAEA was seeking clarification on the announcement. He warned that Iran could face punitive measures if any of its research activities were found to relate to uranium enrichment.
For more than two years, the Bush administration has been trying to persuade allies to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where it could face political and economic sanctions. Tehran's declaration could bolster America's case.
"Our view is that if Iran takes any further enrichment-related steps, the international community will have to consider additional measures to constrain Iran's nuclear ambitions," McCormack told reporters. "Iran is trying to pursue nuclear weapons under the cover of a peaceful nuclear program."
He accused Iran of trying to drag out talks with Britain, France and Germany aimed at providing Tehran with peaceful nuclear energy, while attempting to develop its own expertise that it could use to build weapons. Those talks were suspended last summer after Iran declared it would resume a process of converting uranium into a gaseous substance -- a key step toward enrichment.
In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei urged Tehran to hold to its earlier commitment to suspend "all enrichment and reprocessing activities."
The official also urged Tehran to seriously consider a Russian offer to guarantee a supply of safeguarded enriched uranium for the life of Iran's first civilian nuclear reactor nearing completion at Bushehr.
"We consider the time is short now, and that it is up to Iran to take the necessary decisions to relaunch a process of negotiations," Mattei said.
Tehran has sent mixed messages on the Russian proposal and a Foreign Ministry spokesman appeared to reject it Tuesday, saying that Iran wanted to keep control of the enrichment process.
Nonproliferation specialists in Washington viewed Tehran's announcement as the latest step in a strategy to gradually expand nuclear activities it had pledged to suspend, while stopping short of calling off the negotiations.
"Having pushed the envelope last year on uranium conversion and getting no resistance, they are trying to push again to get more," said Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear nonproliferation specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The Iranians have calculated they can do anything shy of enrichment," he said.
Farley reported from the U.N. and Marshall from Washington.