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Nuclear report on Iran is mixed

Times Staff Writers

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency says it has “serious concern” about Iran’s potential to assemble a nuclear bomb because the country has not addressed questions about weapons designs, but it credited Iran for clarifying all other issues about its nuclear program history, a report released Friday says.

The report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency comes as the U.N. Security Council is considering new sanctions against Tehran. Iran has continued to defy earlier U.N. resolutions demanding a halt to the uranium enrichment process, which can be used to produce fuel for a nuclear power plant but also to make nuclear weapons.

Last Friday, the Bush administration allowed the nuclear agency to confront the Islamic Republic with CIA intelligence reports about Iran’s so-called Green Salt Project to weaponize its atomic material, including uranium processing, high-explosive testing and the design of a missile reentry vehicle.

Those findings were gleaned from an Iranian laptop the CIA acquired in 2004. The U.S. shared the material with the IAEA in 2005 but had refused to let the agency show Iran the documents for fear that U.S. sources and methods would be revealed. Tehran insisted the information was either fabricated or dealt with conventional weapons or civilian applications.

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The U.N. report describes a computer image that shows a schematic layout of the inner cone of a reentry vehicle as “quite likely to be able to accommodate a nuclear device.” IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei emphasized that his agency had not found that Iran had utilized the plans.

“This is a matter of great concern and critical to an assessment of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program,” the report says. It adds, however, that the agency has not found evidence linking nuclear material to the U.S. intelligence information and does not consider the U.S. reports credible proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Friday’s report had been much anticipated to see if it would reaffirm the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies in December that Iran had abandoned its military nuclear program in 2003 but had the potential to resume it.

In a news conference Friday, ElBaradei credited Iran with progress in clarifying previously unanswered questions about the program except for the weaponization issue, and he expressed confidence that the agency understood the scope and nature of Tehran’s current enrichment program.

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The report says Iran described how it procured nuclear technology from Pakistan’s illicit nuclear network and how traces of bomb-grade uranium found at a research site were spread by contaminated equipment delivered from Pakistan.

ElBaradei asked Tehran to quickly respond to the new weaponization questions and cautioned that until it gave inspectors full access to certain sites, the IAEA could not settle the question of whether the nation’s nuclear program could be diverted to military purposes.

The report strikes a delicate middle ground, providing fodder for Security Council members who demand new sanctions, as well as ammunition for those who argue that Iran deserves a break for its good-faith efforts.

On Thursday, Britain and France formally introduced a Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, after having waited for the IAEA report at the request of council members South Africa, Indonesia, Libya and Vietnam. The resolution, which would be the third round of sanctions on Iran, would impose travel bans and restrictions on cargo, freeze assets of people involved in the program and tighten monitoring of Iranian financial institutions.

Iranian officials described the report as a victory for their government, saying ElBaradei had closed the case. Iranian newspapers received printed directives from the country’s Supreme National Security Council, an official body close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, advising journalists to write about the IAEA report as a great national success.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday that Iran had brought world powers “to their knees” and resisted U.S.-led efforts to force Tehran to halt uranium enrichment, Iranian news agencies reported.

Since the first U.N. resolution demanding that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, the country has instead significantly accelerated it, now running 3,000 centrifuges that enrich uranium.

During ElBaradei’s visit to the Natanz nuclear facility this year, Iranian officials showed him a new generation of domestically designed centrifuges that run two to three times faster; they say they have begun introducing nuclear material into them. Iran also said it has converted 300 tons of uranium hexafluoride into gas to be fed into the centrifuges, suggesting that it is closer to being able to enrich uranium independently and more efficiently than experts realized.

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The U.S. and European powers suspect that Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons technology under the guise of a civil energy program, and as evidence cite its 18 years of clandestine development and black market purchases.

Iran says the program was driven underground by sanctions that made it impossible to purchase materials on the open market, and it insists its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

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maggie.farley@latimes.com

daragahi@latimes.com

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Farley reported from the U.S. and Daragahi from Beirut. Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.


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