“Israeli Nuclear Capabilities and Threat” I

The 48th Annual Regular Session of the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled to open in Vienna later this month, Monday through Friday, the 20th through the 24th.

As you all know, the IAEA is tasked with accelerating and enlarging the “contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure,” Article II continues, “so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.” (Statute of the IAEA, 1956, with various amendments along the way.)

Nice objectives. These. Am sure you’ll all agree.

Curious about the upcoming Vienna conference (actually, a lot of conferences are scheduled), and just having gotten around to reading a transcript of the American Secretary of State’s comments en route to Washington from Haiti Wednesday on the Government of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program (“Our view is that it should have been referred to the [Security] Council long ago,” Powell said in answer to a question (“Remarks to the Press en Route Washington,” Sept. 1)), as well as the coverage this Iranian business received in the mainstream English-language media these past couple of days (one of “two of the gravest threats” going forward, the editorial voice of the Washington Post intoned today (Sept. 3)—the other “gravest” being North Korea), I went and took a look at the IAEA’s website.

Here’s something I just found—but was never looking for.

The IAEA’s “Provisional Agenda” as of this past June 22, 2004, for the conference scheduled in Vienna (Sept. 20-24) originally was to have included the following Plenary session:

20. Israeli nuclear capabilities and threat (GC(47)/DEC/13).

Then, two months later, in a brief, four-page document titled “Provisional Agenda Corrigendum,” dated August 24, we read instead (p. 1):

Delete item 20 of the provisional agenda contained in document GC(48)/1 entitled: “Israeli nuclear capabilities and threat“.

But this was absolutely the last word. As far as the reasons stated within the “Corrigendum” for the IAEA’s decision to delete Item 20, Israeli nuclear capabilities and threat, from its final agenda for the major conference planned in Vienna, there was not another word.

Instead, the remainder of this August 24 “Corrigendum” went on to report (and please do check it out for yourselves) how the now-deleted Item 20 wound up on the IAEA’s “Provisional Agenda” (June 22) in the first place.

Seems that Salim Mohammed Al-Riyami, the Ambassador of Oman to the Arab League, forwarded a request on behalf of the Arab League to “kindly include” the item on the IAEA’s agenda for its Vienna conference.

The IAEA did. Hence the “Provisional Agenda‘s” Item 20 (June 22). Later, the IAEA deleted Item 20. Hence the “Provisional Agenda Corrigendum” (Aug. 24). In the interim, “Poof!” Item 20 went up in smoke. Disappeared without an explanation. At least as best I can tell. Though not without a trace.

Ambassador Al-Riyami, however, gave reasons why the Arab League was interested in placing Item 20 on the IAEA’s agenda. This “Explanatory Memorandum” is worth taking a look at. (See the “Provisional Agenda Corrigendum,” Aug. 24, pp. 3-4.)

“Arab States,” Al-Riyami noted, “have always shown their readiness to take practical steps towards creating in the Middle East a zone from of nuclear, chemical ad biological weapons of mass destruction, and to refrain from taking any measures which could hamper the attainment of this goal” (par. 6).

He continued:

7. Whereas Arab States have acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Israel continues to defy the international community by refusing to become a party to the Treaty or to place its installations under the Agency’s comprehensive safeguards system, thus exposing the region to nuclear risks and threatening peace. Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is likely to lead to a destructive nuclear arms race in the region, especially if Israel’s nuclear installations remain outside any international control.

8. The International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion of July 1996 on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons stressed that there existed an obligation on the part of all States to pursue in good faith, and to bring to a conclusion, negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all of its aspect under strict and effective international control.

9. At the forty-second, forty-third, forty-fourth, forty-fifth and forty-sixth sessions of the Agency’s General Conference (September 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002), an item entitled Israeli nuclear capabilities and threat was re-inscribed on the agenda at the request of a number of Member States. The Agency’s General Conference endorsed at the tenth plenary meeting of its forty-seventh session in September 2003 the following statement by the President:

“The General Conference recalls the statement by the President of the 36th session in 1992 concerning the agenda item “Israeli nuclear capabilities and threat”. That statement considered it desirable not to consider that agenda item at the 37th session.

The General Conference also recalls the statement by the President of the 43rd session in 1999 concerning the same agenda item. At the 44th, 45th, 46th and 47th sessions, this item was, at the request of certain Member States, re-inscribed on the agenda. The item was discussed.

Several Member States requested that this item be included in the provisional agenda of the 48th regular session of the General Conference.”

All Member States of the Agency are invited to co-operate in order to remedy this situation resulting from the fact that Israel alone possesses nuclear capabilities, which are undeclared and not subject to international control and which constitute a permanent threat to peace and security in the region.

The General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency must take appropriate measures to ensure that Israel places all its nuclear installations under Agency safeguards and accedes to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, July 1, 1968

Documents and Texts Related to the NPT, Federation of American Scientists

Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion, July 8, 1996

FYA (“For your archives”): Am depositing here (a) the relevant excerpt from the American Secretary of State’s September 1 comments on the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, followed by (b) a sample of the mainstream English-language news media’s coverage of the allegations. What is important is that Colin Powell and the rest of the Bush regime have begun pressuring the IAEA to start finding the Iranian Government in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to use bring this “finding” before the UN Security Council for the sake of instituting forms of sanctions against Iran—or worse. There also is the freelance element of the Israel Defense Forces at play here. Namely, the threat of an Israeli airstrike against one or more of the Iranian nuclear facilities, a la the June, 1981 Israeli airstrike against the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq. (About which, more another time.) Now some 23 years later, another action such as this—already deadly and provocative in the extreme—could easily cause far more severe consequences.—For the madmen in Washington and elsewhere to even broach such a policy ought to disqualify them, immediately, from public life. Instead, they rail and they rant onward. Like a locomotive careening down its tracks—until it can’t hold its tracks any longer.

(A) Remarks to the Press en Route Washington [Excerpt]
U.S. Department of State
Secretary Colin L. Powell
En Route To Washington
September 1, 2004

QUESTION: Thanks I wanted to ask you about the IAEA’s report on Iran today. I guess a little bit about your assessment. Does it help or hurt chances of moving this into the Council and is that still a goal? Is that he number one goal right now in dealing with Iran?

POWELL: I’ve just gotten spot reports on what it contains. I haven’t read it myself yet and I haven’t gotten a full analysis of it from my staff. And they’re poring over it now. I think what it will say is that there are many problems with Iranian performance. I think it will also say that there are questions that remain unanswered. And at least the people that did the report, and Dr. ElBaradei may not be prepared to a final conclusion as to the nature of the problem. But, I haven’t really had a chance to get a full assessment of the report.

Our view is that it should have been referred to the Council long ago. It is still our position that it ought to be referred to the Council. We were of that view last November when we worked with our friends in the EU, who wanted a different approach wanted to take a different approach to the problem. They did and we supported that and we watched it. Now it is almost a year later, ten months later, and we still believe that the Iranians are not fessing up to everything. They still have a program that, in our judgment, is a nuclear program designed to develop, ultimately, a nuclear weapon. And unless there are assurances otherwise that the international community can count on, I think it is appropriate for it to be referred to the Security Council.

Now, that will be our position going in to the discussions on the 13th of September when the Board meets to take this issue up, as well as other issues before the IAEA. Whether there is a consensus to do that now remains to be seen. But we think we’ve seen enough. The world should have seen enough over the last year to come to the conclusion that it is time for it to be referred to the Security Council. But, there are a lot of discussions that will have to take place. I’ll start tomorrow with the EU-3 and other members of the IAEA to get a sense of what the international consensus is. There are a number of countries, I think, that would say, “No, let’s not do it yet. Let’s take another look at it in November.” We think there is enough now to do it, but I obviously have to hear what others have to say. But, this should have been referred before.

QUESTION: Following on that, Undersecretary Bolton suggested in a speech over the summer that diplomacy didn’t seem to be working and it was I forget his words it is time to start thinking about isolating Iran rather than engaging Iran. What are your thoughts about that?

POWELL: Diplomacy is never working until it works. You remember the famous George Mitchell line at 788 straight days of failure on the Good Friday Agreement until Good Friday came and we had an agreement. So, I think there is still a diplomatic track here, hopefully a diplomatic solution. But, frankly, if the international community comes together and decides that it has to be referred to the Security Council, then the next question before us is: what alternatives are available to the Security Council? And we are examining what alternatives might be presented to the Security Council for its consideration if there is a referral.

John’s speech, the speech you’ve actually described, says if this country, Iran, continues to move in this direction and it is referred to the United Nations Security Council, there has to be action taken by the Council. And we’re looking at the range of possible actions of a political, economic, diplomatic and other nature that might be taken.


September 02, 2004, Thursday
SECTION: News; International Pg. 16
HEADLINE: Iran takes key step in nuclear project
BYLINE: By Anton La Guardia Diplomatic Editor

IRAN WILL take an important step in developing the ability to build atomic weapons this month when it finishes large-scale “testing” of a process to make fissile material, nuclear experts reported yesterday.

Teheran’s decision to press ahead with a plant to make uranium hexafluoride, a gas used to make enriched uranium, will deepen suspicions in the West about Iran’s supposedly “peaceful” nuclear programme.

However, a confidential report by the United Nations watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, seen by The Daily Telegraph, does not provide proof of an arms programme that would strengthen American calls for sanctions against Iran.

Diplomats say Teheran is likely to escape any punishment at least until after the United States presidential election in November.

Washington has called for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. One western diplomat said: “This is the mildest report in two years. If you are going to push it to the Security Council you would want a report that really unearths something new and juicy.”

A British source called for a united UN approach, saying: “We have to move steadily.”

Iran says it has a legal right to enrich uranium for power station fuel. But the West fears the technology can be used to make highly enriched uranium for weapons.

The IAEA report said Iran had plans to convert 37 tonnes of ore into uranium hexafluoride in “August/September 2004”. Nuclear experts say this could ultimately produce enough fissile material for up to five crude nuclear bombs.

Financial Times (London, England)
September 2, 2004 Thursday
London Edition 1
HEADLINE: UN agency adds to fears on Iran’s nuclear ambitions URANIUM ENRICHMENT:

Iran’s determination to pursue its uranium enrichment programme was underlined yesterday by a United Nations nuclear watchdog report that said Tehran was still producing large quantities of uranium hexafluoride, the substance used to make enriched uranium.

The confidential report by the International Atomic Energy Agency obtained by the Financial Times comes as the US seeks support for a tough resolution on Iran at a governing board meeting of the IAEA on September 13.

Washington wants the nuclear controversy to be referred to the UN Security Council, a move that would raise diplomatic pressure on Iran. But the US is likely to face strong opposition from others members of the IAEA board.

The report’s assertion that Iran planned this August and September to convert 37 tonnes of yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride – the material spun in centrifuges to make enriched uranium, which can then be used to make nuclear weapons or as fuel in peaceful reactors – will further stoke concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Diplomats said the scale of the conversion – 37 tonnes of yellowcake contains enough enriched uranium to make a handful of nuclear weapons – was surprising given Iran’s claim that it is simply conducting tests. But the Vienna-based agency said it was not yet in a position to draw definitive conclusions about whether Iran’s programme was for peaceful energy generation or weapons production. The IAEA report said the agency “continues to make steady progress in understanding the programme”.

The agency is also continuing to investigate the extent of Iran’s efforts to import, manufacture and use centrifuges. The IAEA report cast doubt on Iran’s claim that it had done no work with so-called P2 centrifuges until early 2002.

Iran is not under obligation from the IAEA to stop enrichment activities but it pledged to do so as a confidence building measure in an agreement reached last year with the UK, France and Germany. That deal has since foundered and Tehran informed the three European governments this summer that it was resuming uranium enrichment. In any case Iran’s interpretation of the agreement excluded any requirement that it suspend the production of feed material for centrifuges.

Iran received better marks from the IAEA on other fronts: the report said Tehran’s claims that samples of highly enriched uranium found at two facilities came from contaminated imported equipment rather than domestic enrichment now appeared plausible. But the agency said more information was needed on where the imported material was manufactured.

In at least in two areas that had seemed controversial in the past – laser enrichment and uranium conversion experiments – the IAEA declared itself satisfied with Iran’s explanations and its investigations now completed.

The Guardian (London) – Final Edition
September 2, 2004
SECTION: Guardian Foreign Pages, Pg. 17
HEADLINE: Iran says it will resume uranium processing
BYLINE: Ian Traynor

Iran has told UN nuclear inspectors that it is about to process dozens of tonnes of raw uranium into the gas which centrifuges can turn into nuclear bomb material, a disclosure certain to reinforce US arguments that Tehran has embarked on a secret atomic weapons programme.

A confidential report by Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, supplied to diplomats yesterday and obtained by the Guardian, says that Iran has recently told his inspectors that in “August/ September” it would convert 37 tonnes of crude uranium into uranium hexafluoride – the gas spun at high speed through cascades of large centrifuges to be enriched, either to low levels for use as nuclear power station fuel, or to high levels for weapons purposes.

The news will encourage US-led hawks to seek to punish Iran for its alleged nuclear ambitions. The US undersecretary of state, John Bolton, said: “Iran’s announcements are further strong evidence of the compelling need to take Iran’s nuclear programme to the security council.

“The United States will con tinue to urge other members of the IAEA board of governors to join us in this effort, to deal with the Iranian threat to international peace and security,” he added.

Iran agreed last year to freeze its enrichment programme.

More sceptical diplomats following the two-year mystery of its nuclear project said the Iranians were entitled under their international commitments to process the uranium, that they had notified the IAEA well in advance, and that there was no evidence of them enriching uranium to levels required for a weapon.

Mr ElBaradei’s report is the prelude to a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-strong board in two weeks.

In recent weeks the war of words between Tehran and the US and Israel on the nuclear issue has heated up. The European troika of Britain, France, and Germany, which has been trying to defuse the row, is also becoming more suspicious of Iranian intentions.

Yesterday Chris Patten, the EU’s foreign relations commissioner, admitted that after more than a year of trying to engage with Tehran the policy had “gone backwards”.

But the latest document from Mr ElBaradei is kind to the Iranians on several fronts.

It reports progress on a host of scientific and industrial issues, with the Iranians praised for providing access to sites and experts involved in the programme. Two previous areas of concern – laser enrichment activities and uranium conversion experiments – are now to be relegated to “routine” inspections.

“The agency continues to make progress in understanding the programme,” the report says, but inspectors are not yet able to “draw definitive conclusions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations”.

After months of mystery surrounding the traces of highly enriched uranium in samples taken from Iranian equipment, the report says Iran’s claim that they originated on items bought on the black market is “plausible”.

While the report confirms the resumption of some uranium enrichment operations, the inspectors have found no resumption of worrying activities at the main underground enrichment complex at Natanz, nor “any activities inconsistent with the agency’s understanding of Iran’s current suspension undertakings” at five other key sites.

Los Angeles Times
September 2, 2004 Thursday
Home Edition
SECTION: MAIN NEWS; Foreign Desk; Part A; Pg. 10
HEADLINE: Iran to Convert Uranium Batch;
Finished product has peaceful uses but can be used for weapons, U.N. atomic agency says. U.S. warns of a ‘threat to international security.’
BYLINE: Douglas Frantz, Times Staff Writer

Iran plans to convert 37 tons of uranium into a substance that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency said in a report Wednesday.

Although the Iranian plans do not violate nonproliferation regulations because the material also has peaceful uses, they immediately stoked concern in Washington about the aims of Tehran’s ambitious nuclear program.

“Iran’s announcements are further strong evidence of the compelling need to take Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council,” said U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who called Iran’s nuclear efforts a “threat to international peace and security.”

Iran’s intentions were disclosed in a confidential report prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency that was obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is intended solely to generate electricity. The United States has repeatedly accused Tehran of concealing a weapons program behind a civilian facade.

In its sixth report on the Iranian program, the atomic agency gave it mixed marks. It praised Iran for cooperating on many fronts, but said key aspects of its nuclear activities were still unclear because of missing information.

The two primary areas of concern are the sources of uranium contamination found at four locations during the last year in Iran and the extent of the country’s efforts to develop advanced centrifuges for turning uranium gas into enriched uranium, which can be used in weapons or to fuel civilian reactors.

The report provided explanations for traces of weapons-grade uranium discovered at a huge enrichment plant under construction near the central Iranian city of Natanz and at a formerly secret facility outside Tehran known as Kalaye Electric Co.

The IAEA report said Iran’s statement that the contamination came from components bought from another country was “plausible.” It also said there was no indication that Iran had tried to produce weapons-grade uranium at those two locations.

The country that supplied the contaminated components was not named in the report, but diplomats familiar with the inquiry confirmed that it was Pakistan. They said Pakistan had provided samples of enriched uranium that matched some of the traces found at Natanz and Kalaye.

However, the atomic agency was still investigating other possible sources of the highly enriched uranium and lower-grade uranium traces, the report said, leaving open the possibility that Iran enriched uranium itself at other locations, said a Western diplomat who reviewed the document.

“The IAEA still needs more cooperation from other states, mainly Pakistan, to determine whether Iran enriched its own uranium,” the diplomat said in a telephone interview from Vienna, where the agency is based.

Hamid Reza Asefi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, issued a statement in Tehran acknowledging that some questions remained about the nuclear program. But he said they would be resolved soon.

The latest report was circulated among diplomats Wednesday and will be debated next week when the agency’s board of governors meets in Vienna.

Jon B. Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the IAEA had not found proof that Iran was operating a secret weapons program, but he said long-range concerns remained.

“Iran still has an active nuclear program that will give it the ability to make weapons if it wants,” Wolfsthal said.

Diplomats in Vienna said the United States probably would point to Iran’s ambitious uranium conversion plans as evidence of the need for tougher steps to restrict its nuclear program.

The IAEA report said Iranian officials had told the agency this summer that they were planning to convert 37 tons of yellowcake, or milled uranium, into uranium hexafluoride gas. Experts said the gas could be used to produce enough highly enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs or to fuel civilian reactors.

Iran, which has the right to enrich the uranium, said it plans to conduct the tests under IAEA supervision.

The Western diplomat speculated that Iran was using the threat of an industrial-size conversion to persuade Britain, France and Germany to fulfill promises made last year to share advanced nuclear technology.

The European countries agreed to provide the technology in exchange for Iran’s pledge to stop enriching uranium and halt production of centrifuges, machines that spin uranium hexafluoride into enriched uranium for weapons or power plants.

Iran reneged this summer on its pledge not to produce centrifuges, and the plan to convert yellowcake could increase pressure on the European countries to start either sharing technology or getting tougher with Tehran, diplomats said.

Undersecretary Bolton said the U.S. viewed “with great concern the IAEA report that Iran is about to convert 37 tons of yellowcake uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas.”

The New York Times
September 2, 2004 Thursday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 4; Foreign Desk; Pg. 12
HEADLINE: Pakistan Found to Aid Iran Nuclear Efforts

A new assessment of Iran’s nuclear program by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency says that, as early as 1995, Pakistan was providing Tehran with the designs for sophisticated centrifuges capable of making bomb-grade nuclear fuel. It also finds evidence that, as of the mid-August, Iran had assembled and tested the major components for 70 of the machines, which it showed to inspectors from the agency.

But the report, issued to members of the agency yesterday as a confidential document, provided no new evidence of the kind of covert programs that the agency has discovered in the last year, and suggested that the Iranian government was slowly becoming more helpful to inspectors. That assessment, American officials said, is likely to discourage moves by the Bush administration to take Iran to the United Nations Security Council for penalties unless it dismantles its program, which the Iranians say is entirely peaceful and which the United States says is designed to produce nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, returning from a brief visit to Panama, told reporters yesterday that the Bush administration was still studying the report but that the United States would definitely push the agency’s board of governors in September to refer Iran’s lack of cooperation to the United Nations Security Council, where further steps would be considered.

The administration has tried such a step in the past but failed to get enough votes on the board, and Mr. Powell said yesterday that it remained to be seen ”whether there is a consensus” on the board now.

In an interview last week with The New York Times, President Bush suggested that he would be patient, and would pursue diplomatic means to halt any Iranian weapons program. ”We’ll continue pressing diplomatically,” Mr. Bush said.

He said the cases of Iran and North Korea were different from that of Iraq. ”Diplomacy failed for 11 years in Iraq,” he said. ”And this new diplomatic effort is barely a year ago.”

Senator John Kerry has argued that Mr. Bush has allowed the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea to speed forward while the United States is engaged in Iraq.

The report will help Europe and Russia — two of Iran’s largest trading partners, with much to lose if penalties are enacted — which are seeking to defuse any confrontation. In the absence of what one senior European official called ”a smoking nuke,” the report issued yesterday seems likely to delay any major decisions on how to deal with Iran until after the American presidential election. But the report also suggested that the Iranians fully intended to move forward with the production of uranium, on a much larger scale than in the past.

The report, issued under the name of the agency’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, notes Iranian plans to conduct an industrial-scale test of a plant that converts raw uranium into nuclear fuel. Iranian officials, the agency reported, plan to turn 37 tons of nearly raw uranium, called yellowcake, into uranium hexafluoride. That, in turn, is poured into the centrifuges for enrichment.

Several specialists in the United States government and outside said that amount of uranium could be enough to produce fuel for five or six atomic weapons. But Iran insists that it only intends to use enriched uranium for electric production, a contention American officials dismiss. A country with huge oil reserves, they say, has no need for nuclear power.

The report states that Iran received the design for an advanced centrifuge, called a P-2 because it was a second-generation machine designed in Pakistan, as early as 1995. American intelligence officials have said they had no evidence, throughout the 1990’s, that Iran was receiving aid from Pakistan, so the atomic energy agency’s findings suggest what one senior intelligence official called ”a fairly major failure, despite the fact that we were watching Iran and Pakistan quite closely.” Three years later, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear tests.

But Iran, which had invested in an earlier model of the centrifuges, has insisted to inspectors that it did not begin producing the newer, far more sophisticated machinery until two years ago. The agency said it was still investigating that.

Though the report does not cite the source of the purchase, it is now known to have come from the laboratories of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb. Pakistan’s government has argued that it had no knowledge of Dr. Khan’s clandestine activities, which included sales to Libya and North Korea starting about the same time.

”What Iran got came almost entirely from one country,” said a senior international diplomat who had been briefed on the findings. ”And it seems to point directly back to Pakistan’s own laboratories.”

The origin of the equipment is especially important because Iran is trying to explain why some samples of uranium taken by the agency show that it has been enriched far beyond the levels needed to produce nuclear power, though a little short of the usual purity for bomb fuel. In the report, the agency says that its studies indicate that it is ”plausible” that some of the samples it took in Iran had been contaminated by equipment that was previously used elsewhere, presumably in Pakistan.

If it is true, it would help lift suspicion that Iran was already producing uranium suitable for arms. But agency officials are still suspicious that some of the uranium could have been produced elsewhere in Iran, at plants they have yet to discover.

The Washington Post
September 2, 2004 Thursday
Final Edition
SECTION: A Section; A13
HEADLINE: Rejecting International Pressure, Iran to Process Uranium
BYLINE: Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer

Iran, in a fresh rebuff of demands that it abandon its nuclear ambitions, has decided to process a large quantity of uranium into a precursor ingredient used in making both commercial nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons, the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said yesterday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, in a confidential report, said Iran intends to convert more than 40 tons of uranium into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, an intermediate step in the complex process of making enriched uranium. The plan, if carried out, would represent a significant step forward for Iran’s nuclear program and — in the view of Bush administration officials — a growing threat. In theory, that much uranium could yield as many as five crude nuclear bombs.

Administration officials reacted strongly to the revelation, vowing to launch a new effort this month to bring Iran before the U.N. Security Council for international censure. “The United States will continue to urge others . . . to join us in the effort to deal with the Iranian threat to international peace and security,” said John R. Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Iran emphatically denies seeking nuclear weapons, but it insists it will assert its legal right to develop a commercial nuclear power industry. Although international inspectors have found no hard evidence linking the Islamic state to a nuclear weapons program, Iran’s credibility has been battered by numerous disclosures of past Iranian attempts to conceal sensitive nuclear research.

Iran has also angered key U.S. allies in Europe by backing away from commitments to freeze components of its nuclear program, including the production of centrifuge machines used in enriching uranium. In an agreement reached last fall with Britain, France and Germany, Iran promised to suspend the production of enriched uranium in return for trade and technical assistance.

Iran’s decision to begin the conversion of 37 tonnes (40.7 tons) of raw yellowcake uranium into UF6 is seen by U.S. officials and many weapons experts as a further flouting of Iran’s commitments. Several experts described the quantity as surprising and disturbing.

The revelation was contained in an IAEA report that otherwise contained much favorable news for the Islamic republic. The document — one in a series of periodic updates on the findings of a U.N. investigation of Iran’s nuclear program — gave the Iranians high marks for cooperating with international inspectors. Unlike past reports, it featured no bombshells about past Iranian nuclear activity. It concluded that Iran had “plausibly” explained the existence of some particles of enriched uranium found in several of Iran’s nuclear facilities — particles that now appear to have entered the country on contaminated equipment purchased on the black market.

With the new report, the Bush administration faces diminishing prospects for finding “smoking gun” evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program — and also, perhaps, for rounding up international support for tough action against Iran, said Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director for nonproliferation studies at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace. “Iran has answered the questions about its past while moving ahead with its enrichment program — and we don’t have a process in place to convince them to give it up,” Wolfsthal said. “There’s an open stretch of highway leading up to nuclear capability for Iran, and not a roadblock in sight.”

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