Iran began to enrich a second batch of uranium in its research plant this week on the same day that world powers offered it an incentive package conditioned on its suspension of nuclear activities, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report released Thursday.
The timing of the nuclear work, which Western diplomats suggested was politically calculated, appeared to signal that Iran would fight to continue enriching uranium despite the demands by the global community.
“On the timing, knowing the Iranians, nothing is left to chance,” said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity.
In an offer delivered Tuesday to Tehran by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Iran would get a package of incentives -- including trade and economic measures and help building light-water reactors to generate electricity -- in exchange for giving up its enrichment work.
The IAEA report says Iran has reintroduced uranium gas into its centrifuges and started to process a new batch of raw uranium into UF6, the gas that is the feedstock for enriched uranium.
There is no deadline for a response to the offer, but Western diplomats have said they expect Iran to answer in weeks not months and Iranian officials are expected to work hard to win their position. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will meet next week with Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose government is one of the six that presented the offer to Iran.
Diplomats and experts agree that the biggest task will be to satisfy the parties on the issue of enrichment. Iran has said it will not give up its right as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue atomic technology for peaceful purposes.
“Uranium enrichment may be the sticking issue.... How to deal with it is absolutely critical,” said a senior diplomat in Vienna. “You have to find a face-saving formula for the Iranians and Americans.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday that Iran would cause “a lot of difficulty” if it refused to suspend uranium enrichment.
“They should know that all of us are seeking a diplomatic solution to this, and whether we can get one depends to an extent on them,” Blair said.
In a major policy shift, the United States agreed last week to join France, Britain and Germany in direct talks with Iran if it suspended its nuclear activities. The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, and the Bush administration insists that it will not negotiate while Tehran has even a single centrifuge spinning.
For Iran, which announced in early April that it had successfully enriched a few grams of uranium, suspending that operation would be humiliating and like taking a step backward.
Uranium enrichment is the process in which large quantities of uranium gas are spun in centrifuges to purify it into fissile material, which can be used either for civilian purposes or, if more highly purified, to make a bomb. Western countries believe Iran wants to build a bomb; the Iranians say that they are only pursuing peaceful uses.
The report from the IAEA, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, contains “nothing earthshaking,” said a senior U.N. official. However, the report, which was sent to the organization’s 35-member board of governors ahead of its meeting next week, outlines a long list of questions that Iran has not answered about its nuclear program, which was clandestine for 18 years until it was exposed by an Iranian opposition group.
However, the report disputes earlier information that suggested Iran had stopped its enrichment activities. According to the report, after an initial batch of uranium gas was fed into the centrifuges in early April, which allowed the Iranians to produce the grams of low-enriched uranium, they stopped feeding in the gas to all but two centrifuges.
Iran continued to spin its 164-centrifuge cascade, but without the gas, at its pilot plant at Natanz in the desert. The spinning of centrifuges -- with or without gas -- is a key technological exercise. It is crucial for engineers to be sure that the centrifuges will spin stably and consistently before undertaking large-scale enrichment, nuclear experts said.
Iran has plans for an industrial-scale enrichment plant at Natanz, with 50,000 to 60,000 centrifuges.
According to a senior U.N. official, Iran is continuing to construct two more centrifuge cascades at the pilot plant and has begun groundwork for the industrial facility.
The IAEA report also underscores serious questions about the contamination of vacuum equipment that was stored at a technical university. The equipment, found to have traces of highly enriched uranium particles, may have been used at Iran’s Lavisan-Shian military site, which was razed before nuclear inspectors could examine it. Inspectors want to go back to do more comprehensive tests and obtain answers to other questions about how the equipment was used.
The uranium particles were enriched above 20%, technically making them highly enriched. The enrichment threshold for making a bomb is 80%.
“It should not be this kind of contamination,” said a senior U.N. official. However, he said that there were many possible explanations and, for the moment, they did not know the answer.