VIENNA (AFP) – In a dramatic 11th hour move ahead of a crucial UN atomic agency meeting, Iran has asked the watchdog to exempt several dozen centrifuges from its pledge to freeze its nuclear fuel cycle, diplomats told AFP.
The development has been rejected by the European Union which earlier this month negotiated what was supposed to be a halt in all of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities.
It comes ahead of a meeting Thursday of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which will decide whether to bring Iran before the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, sought by the United States for what it says is a covert nuclear weapons program.
A diplomat close to the agency said the Iranians “are trying to convince the IAEA to leave several dozen of the centrifuges unsealed for RD (research and development) purposes in addition to other equipment which has direct use for enrichment.”
A Western diplomat said it would be “outrageous” if Iran at the last minute exempted some centrifuges, the machines used in enriching uranium.
“It is not acceptable to us,” a European diplomat said.
Under the terms of a deal hammered out with Britain, France and Germany, Tehran was to suspend all uranium enrichment activities from Monday, a move which is now being verified by the IAEA.
Iran had continued to produce the uranium gas that is the feedstuff for enriching uranium only days before Monday’s ban, in a move which one European diplomat characterized as “not very helpful” as it led to doubts about Iran’s intentions and the future of the suspension deal.
Enriched uranium, made by spinning uranium gas in what can be cascades of thousands of centrifuges, can serve as fuel for nuclear reactors or as the raw explosive material for atomic bombs.
Iran has moved quickly to “sanitise” a site in northeast Tehran alleged to be at the heart of its feared pursuit of nuclear weapons, an Iranian opposition group claimed Wednesday.
Speaking in London, National Council of Resistance (NCRI) member Farid Soleimani who said nine days ago in Vienna that secret enrichment work was being done at the Centre for Development of Advance Defence Technology, said the top secret site now has been sealed off.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is to report on the suspension when the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors meets Thursday.
IAEA officials were meeting with an Iranian delegation in Vienna Wednesday to point out that the Europeans insisted on a full, unequivocal suspension, a European diplomat said.
The IAEA board will Thursday hear a European draft resolution based on the suspension agreement and which finally won US backing.
Diplomats said Washington had taken a pragmatic decision to support the European draft, even though it falls short of demanding possible UN sanctions for Iran.
The United States is “just being pragmatic for once, recognizing that the EU3 (Britain, France, Germany) text is pretty good and that there are few good policy alternatives to joining consensus on it,” a Western diplomat said.
The United States has for over a year been trying to get the IAEA board to take Iran before the Security Council, but non-aligned states, as well as the European trio and Russia and China, have opposed this, saying Iran must be given a chance to cooperate with a two-year-old IAEA investigation of its nuclear program.
Iran maintains its nuclear program is strictly peaceful.
Mohammad Saidi, deputy head of Iran’s national Atomic Energy Organisation, said Wednesday the Europeans were trying to legally oblige Iran to maintain an “unlimited suspension”, whereas Iran had only agreed to freeze its controversial fuel cycle work for the duration of a fresh round of negotiations with the EU aimed at reaching a long-term solution to the nuclear stand-off.
The EU has promised Iran a long-term deal, including increased trade and peaceful nuclear technology, if it maintains the suspension.
Under IAEA investigation since February 2003, Iran agreed in October 2003 to suspend the actual enrichment of uranium but continued support activities such as making centrifuges and converting yellowcake into uranium gas.