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Gains at Iran nuclear site seen

Times Staff Writer

Defying the international community, Iran has sharply upgraded its capacity to enrich uranium in recent months while the outside world’s access to and grasp of Tehran’s nuclear program “has deteriorated,” according to an unusually blunt report Wednesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As two U.S. aircraft carriers and a flotilla of warships steamed into the Persian Gulf for previously unannounced exercises off Iranian shores, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency warned that it could not “provide assurances about ... the exclusively peaceful nature” of Tehran’s expanding nuclear effort.

Iran has started low-level operation of 1,312 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, and has begun testing or is constructing 820 additional centrifuges, in a vast underground chamber at the country’s main nuclear facility at Natanz, the report by the Vienna-based IAEA said. The total is more than three times as many centrifuges as Iran had at the facility three months ago.

“What they are doing now is significant,” said a senior U.N. official who spoke on condition that he not be identified because the report officially goes to the U.N. Security Council before it may be released. “Their progress is accelerating.”

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Iran’s continued refusal to comply with Security Council demands for an immediate freeze of its nuclear program is likely to spur another round of U.N. economic sanctions, the third set since December. U.S. diplomats and their allies began preparing proposals for stiffer penalties this month in anticipation of a negative report.

Iran’s representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, disputed portions of the report and said in a telephone interview that Tehran had provided “full cooperation and full transparency” to the U.N. inspectors.

As Iranian officials have in the past, Soltanieh insisted that Tehran’s nuclear program would produce only electricity, not, as the West fears, nuclear weapons.

The centrifuges can be used to provide low enriched fuel for civilian reactors, or they can produce the more highly enriched uranium used for nuclear weapons.

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“We have continued our activities because this is our inalienable right,” the Iranian envoy said. Additional U.N. sanctions, he warned, would “have a negative consequence.” He declined to elaborate.

The Bush administration, which has sought to rein in Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy and sanctions, reacted sharply to the latest IAEA report.

“Iran is thumbing its nose at the international community,” Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told reporters in Washington. “We are not going to agree to accept limited enrichment, to accept that 1,300 centrifuges can continue spinning at their plant at Natanz.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in New York that “the time has come to take a look at additional pressure, to ratchet up the pressure to bring about a change in Iranian calculations.”

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Khalilzad said the U.S. was willing to negotiate directly with Iran to safeguard a civilian nuclear program once Tehran suspended its current enrichment effort, as the Security Council has demanded. Iran has insisted it will not freeze its operations as a precondition for talks.

Khalilzad dealt directly with Iranian counterparts in recent years when he served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, but not on the nuclear issue. He said he did not have instructions to talk informally with the Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Javad Zarif, his partner in previous talks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy began the major, previously unscheduled exercise in the Persian Gulf -- one of the largest shows of military force in the region’s seas since the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq.

Navy officials said the air and sea maneuvers were not designed to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran. They said the training mission was being conducted because three battle groups happened to be nearby at the same time.

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“It’s not a chest-thumping thing,” an official said. “It’s a target of opportunity.”

The Pentagon this year decided to send a second aircraft carrier group to the gulf as part of what senior Defense Department officials acknowledged was an attempt to show that the U.S. could project force in the Middle East even as it was bogged down in Iraq. The two carrier groups currently in the gulf are led by the John C. Stennis and the Nimitz.

The arrival of the third battle group, a flotilla that includes an attack submarine and five large surface ships led by the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, on Wednesday prompted the commander of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, to begin the joint exercise, officials said.

The drill will include mine warfare maneuvers. Iran is believed to be developing the capability to mine portions of the gulf in the event of war, and any mining or military action could cause a sharp spike in the price of oil and affect the global economy.

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“We are conducting this training in order to gain valuable experience across a wide spectrum of naval disciplines,” said Vice Admiral Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of the 5th Fleet, which is the naval component of the U.S. Central Command.

The White House has repeatedly denied speculation that it intends to attack Iran, but it also has refused to rule out the option. The latest exercises come less than two weeks after Vice President Dick Cheney stood aboard the Stennis and warned that Washington and its allies would prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

The administration is seeking to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions while simultaneously reaching out to Tehran for assistance in lessening the violence in neighboring Iraq. The U.S. and Iranian ambassadors are to meet Monday in Baghdad to discuss Iraq. U.S. officials have accused Iran of actively supporting militants who attack American and Iraqi government security forces, a charge Iran has denied.

The IAEA sent its report to the Security Council as a public dispute erupted between the administration and the director of the atomic agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. The U.S. diplomatic mission here sought an urgent meeting Wednesday with ElBaradei to complain that his recent comments to the media had undermined efforts to persuade Iran to roll back its nuclear program.

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ElBaradei probably will meet the diplomats Friday, according to a U.N. official here.

“They come see him all the time,” the official said. “What is unusual is they have gone public to insert some drama” into the complaint. A spokesman for the U.S. mission declined to comment.

ElBaradei said last week that Iran had the technical know-how it needed to enrich uranium, suggesting that enhanced IAEA inspections, rather than an immediate freeze, were the key to preventing Iran from diverting enriched uranium for military purposes.

Administration officials argue that ElBaradei’s statement implied that the Security Council should learn to live with Iran’s enrichment program rather than try to stop it.

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Senior U.N. officials expressed frustration Wednesday as they discussed the current state of inspections in Iran.

“The report shows a standstill in the agency’s ability to progress and clarify outstanding issues,” one diplomat close to the IAEA said. As a result, he said, inspectors can only verify what Iran has agreed to show them, not whether it has diverted any additional nuclear material.

The report faults Iran for failing to answer long-standing questions about its nuclear program, and for its March 29 decision to deny access to several facilities that IAEA inspectors previously were permitted to visit.

In some cases, Iran stopped supplying information to the IAEA that it previously had provided. This included details on the assembly of centrifuges, the manufacture of centrifuge components or associated equipment, and research and development regarding centrifuges or enrichment techniques.

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“It is of concern that while Iran’s nuclear program is advancing, our understanding has deteriorated,” the diplomat close to the IAEA added. “Our full understanding of the program is not as good as before.”

Iran, however, has clearly made significant gains in its enrichment program.

An IAEA inspection conducted on short notice at Natanz on May 13 confirmed that 1,312 centrifuges were “operating simultaneously” and were filled with about 570 pounds of uranium hexafluoride gas, an indication that Iran has begun to surmount technical problems that apparently slowed the program in the past, U.N. officials said.

The operations were still in the testing phase, however, and not yet producing nuclear fuel in significant quantities. Iran also has begun preliminary tests of about 320 more centrifuges and is constructing another 500 at the site, the report says.

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At the current installation rate, a senior U.N. official said, Iran will install 3,000 centrifuges by the end of June. If those machines can spin at supersonic speeds for an extended period, they will give Tehran the minimum capacity necessary to start producing enriched fuel for nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons in about a year.

Iran has announced that it intends to install more than 50,000 centrifuges in all. That would be sufficient to provide enough low-enriched nuclear fuel to power a large civilian reactor, or enough highly enriched uranium each year to make several nuclear bombs.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.


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