Vahid Salemi  /  AP file
Wearing protective clothes, an Iranian security worker walks in the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan before the arrival of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in this March file photo.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/9/2005 10:04:28 PM ET 2005-05-10T02:04:28

Iran on Monday said it will resume enriching uranium within days and stated for the first time that it already has converted 37 tons of the radioactive metal into gas — a key step in the process that could lead to the development of a weapons program.

The announcement of the planned resumption of the enrichment activities threatens to escalate the diplomatic crisis, as the United States and the European Union have warned they would take the matter to the U.N. Security Council if Tehran did so. That could lead to international sanctions

Word of plans to resume the enrichment process came from Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, who made the remarks at a university, according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.

First step in process
“We will lift the first stage of our suspension, which is that of our UCF (Uranium Conversion Facility) project in Isfahan, in the next few days,” IRNA quoted him as saying.

The Isfahan plant is used to convert raw uranium into a gas that can be fed into enrichment centrifuges for purification into a fuel that can be used in nuclear power reactors or, if purified further, into bomb-grade material.

Iran strongly denies U.S. accusations it is trying to build atomic weapons and says its nuclear facilities will only be used as part of a civilian energy program. But it agreed to halt nuclear fuel production and reprocessing in November as a trust-building measure while it tried to negotiate an agreement on the future of its nuclear activities with the EU.

"Iran is fully aware of the implications if they were to start any part of the nuclear fuel cycle," said a British official in London told Reuters.

An EU diplomat said a resumption of work at the Isfahan plant "will lead to a problem with the negotiations. And if the talks fail, the EU3 will support a referral to the Security Council. The ball is in Iran's court."

‘The threats are not new’
"Negotiations are continuing and the threats are not new, but we have to wait to see if Iran acts," he added.

The U.S. State Department said that if Iran broke its agreement with the EU, it would not go unpunished.

"Violation of that agreement with the EU3 and a violation of their pledge would have consequences," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington. "We'd have to look very carefully at what the next (step) would be."

Saeedi said Tehran wanted to continue the negotiations but would resume uranium enrichment itself if the EU failed to heed Iran's proposals on a long-term solution to the nuclear standoff.

“There is no justification now to continue the suspension, but to show our goodwill, we are not resuming our activities all of a sudden,” he said. “If the Europeans in the next stages of negotiations do not pay attention to our proposals, we will resume uranium enrichment as well.”

The new threat comes at a crucial time, with Europe trying in fragile negotiations to seal an agreement to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program does not produce weapons.

The Europeans agreed last year that Iran could finish converting the 37 tons. Iran had begun processing the material in a rushed attempt to do it just before the suspension.

Iran: All uranium converted into gas
Saeedi told the Associated Press that Iran had completed processing all the uranium into UF-4 gas. If processed further into UF-6, the material could be fed into centrifuges and enriched, allowing it to be used either to produce electricity or make nuclear weapons.

Iran suspended all nuclear fuel production and reprocessing in November as a trust-building measure while it tried to negotiate an agreement on the future of its nuclear activities with the EU. Saeedi’s comments marked the first time Iranian officials have said they completed the process.

“We converted all the 37 tons of uranium concentrate known as yellowcake into UF-4 at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility before we suspended work there,” Saeedi said.

Nuclear experts say that when fully processed, the 37 tons of yellowcake can theoretically yield more than 200 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, enough to make five crude nuclear weapons.

Negotiations between Iran and France, Britain and Germany over Tehran’s nuclear program deadlocked last month, as the Europeans pressed for a complete end to Iran’s enrichment program in return for economic incentives.

Iran insists it has the right to carry out enrichment and has warned that if talks collapse it could resume its program.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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