updated 2/3/2005 8:55:40 PM ET 2005-02-04T01:55:40

Iran is testing some parts of machines that can be used to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads, despite a pledge to freeze such activities, diplomats said Thursday citing U.S. intelligence. The revelations dealt a blow to hopes that Iran would scrap uranium enrichment.

The diplomats, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, emphasized that Iran had not started any of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

“It appears no more than checking nuts and bolts” of centrifuge rotors, said a Western diplomat familiar with Iran’s actions and International Atomic Energy Agency controls.

But a second diplomat said other parts were also involved, adding that the IAEA was tipped about the Iranian action by U.S. intelligence. He also said the high number of parts the Iranians subjected to quality controls possibly indicated that they had more centrifuges built than commonly thought.

A third diplomat accredited to the IAEA said the “quality checks” meant that the Iranians “were not living up to the full spirit of cooperation” they were expected to show as part of the suspension.

Troubled talks dealt another blow
The revelations were the latest sign of trouble surrounding talks between European powers and Iran on enrichment.

The United States and other countries fear Iran is seeking to enrich to weapons-grade uranium.

Iran publicly insists that it wants to make low-grade enriched uranium only for nuclear fuel. But a European summary of talks with Tehran leaked to the AP says Iran has privately acknowledged what Washington and its allies have argued all along — that as an oil-rich country, it does not need nuclear energy.

Iran agreed to freeze all enrichment and related activities late last year while it negotiated with the Europeans on technical, economic and political support meant to reduce its international isolation.

The decision derailed U.S. attempts to have it reported to the U.N. Security Council for alleged violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Tehran insists that the suspension is temporary and binding only until the talks end, with or without an agreement. That in itself puts the Islamic Republic at odds with the three European nations, whose focus is turning the suspension into a commitment to scrap all plans to enrich uranium.

One of the diplomats who spoke to the AP said Thursday that a third round of talks would be held Monday in Geneva as planned but added that Iran’s decision to conduct quality tests of centrifuge components was “not helpful” in building European trust.

Programs running for 20 years
Concerns about Iran grew after revelations in mid-2002 of two secret nuclear facilities — a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz set up for thousands of centrifuges and a heavy water production plant near Arak. That led to an IAEA investigation of what turned out to be nearly two decades of covert nuclear activities, including suspicious “dual use” experiments that could be linked to weapons programs.

Iran is not prohibited from running enrichment programs under the Nonproliferation Treaty, but it agreed to a freeze to generate international good will.

Separately Thursday, an Iranian opposition group accused Tehran of producing the material needed to trigger a fission chain reaction that would detonate a nuclear bomb.

The group, the National Council of Resistance, is the political wing of the Mujahedeen Khalq, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization. It has periodically released information on Iran’s nuclear program, most of which cannot be independently confirmed. However, it was instrumental in 2002 in revealing Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

“The Iranian regime is producing Polonium-210, Beryllium and neutron generators” needed to make a detonator, said Mohammed Mohaddessin, a senior official with the opposition group. Speaking in Paris, he said these activities had been concealed from the IAEA.

IAEA officials in Vienna would not comment on his claims and on the revelations about the Iranian quality checks of centrifuge parts.

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