updated 11/23/2006 10:50:09 PM ET 2006-11-24T03:50:09

Iran has agreed to open records on its uranium enrichment activities, the chief U.N. nuclear weapons inspector said Thursday — a move that could give his experts a better grasp of a program the Security Council fears could be used for atomic arms.

The concession — announced by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency — appeared timed to blunt IAEA action against Tehran for its defiance of demands by the agency's board meant to reduce concerns of a hidden weapons program. Unmoved, the IAEA's 35-nation board denied Iran's request for technical help in building its Arak plutonium-producing reactor.

Tehran's decision to provide access to the operating records of its pilot uranium enrichment plant at Natanz came with another incitement — a pledge to allow inspectors to take more samples from a facility that had yielded suspicious traces of enriched uranium. Both moves were described as potentially significant by U.N. officials and experts, and ElBaradei called them "important steps."

Uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing can both produce fissile material for nuclear warheads. While Iran says it only wants to generate energy and needs the plutonium-producing Arak plant to make nuclear isotopes for medical use, there is concern because both programs could be used to make weapons.

The board decision was to waive a ruling on the Arak reactor. That in effect denied IAEA help — at least for the next two years, after which new requests will be considered and the Arak project may be resubmitted.

Dueling interpretations
The wording of the board's decision, which approved all requests for IAEA technical aid "with the exception of" Arak, allowed both the United States and Iran to claim victory.

Gregory L. Schulte, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, said Arak was "removed entirely from the program, not just deferred."

"The U.S. and the IAEA are not prepared to help countries build nuclear bombs," he told reporters.

Disputing Schulte's view, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, the chief Iranian representative, said the ruling means "that this project was not deleted ... and therefore we are expecting as soon as possible the decision be made" to provide the requested aid.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the IAEA was legally required to provide technical assistance to Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"It is the duty of the IAEA to help. If they help, we will appreciate it. If not, we will do it on our own," Mottaki said.

Like the plutonium that will be produced at Arak, Iranian efforts to develop a full enrichment program worry the international community. Ignoring a July Security Council demand to stop enrichment activities, Iran has instead expanded them, recently setting up a second experimental chain of 164 centrifuges to produce small amounts of low-enriched uranium.

And its plans are ambitious — Tehran has said it intends to activate 3,000 centrifuges by late 2006, and then increase the program to 54,000 centrifuges. That, say Iranian officials, would produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a 1,000-megawatt reactor, such as that at Bushehr, being built by Russia and near completion. Experts have estimated that — if interested — Iran would need only 1,500 centrifuges to produce a nuclear weapon.

Records could give IAEA useful information
While Iran's pilot enrichment plant at Natanz is under some IAEA monitoring, Iran's offer to open the operating records of that facility could potentially yield key information to agency inspectors that has up to now been off limits.

"It should tell them how well the centrifuges have operated," said former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security closely tracks Iran's nuclear activities. Such information is important to verify other evidence that the Iranian program has been hobbled by technical glitches.

The records should also help strengthen IAEA findings on the degree to which Iran has enriched the small amount of uranium it has processed since starting its enrichment program early this year. The agency puts that at 5 percent or below — far from the more than 90 percent needed to make the core of nuclear warheads.

Tehran's other offer — to allow IAEA inspectors to look for new samples of enriched uranium at a site where earlier finds revealed traces that could come from an undeclared program linked to the military — was described as "important" by a U.N. official. He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly comment on the issue.

The board also reviewed a report on the latest stage of a nearly four-year IAEA investigation into Iran's nuclear activities.

That report says that the agency has been unable to make headway in determining whether suspicions that Tehran intends to make nuclear weapons are well founded. On Thursday, ElBaradei said his inspectors had "not been able to make any progress" in their investigation.

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