UN experts on Sunday were inspecting Iran’s controversial second uranium enrichment plant to verify whether the newly disclosed facility was designed for peaceful nuclear purposes.
Inspection of the plant, being built inside a mountain near the Shiite holy city of Qom, came as US President Barack Obama garnered support from France and Russia for a separate UN-brokered deal to end the crisis over Tehran’s atomic programme.
A four-member team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors arrived in Tehran early on Sunday and later began inspecting the facility which is being constructed adjacent to a military base south of the capital.
“They are currently doing their job,” Ali Shirzadian, spokesman of Iran Atomic Energy Organisation, told AFP without offering details.
Iran’s Mehr news agency said the UN team is expected to make “several visits” to the plant during their three-day stay.
Iran’s disclosure to the IAEA of the Qom plant’s existence on September 21 sparked a wave of global outrage, with Obama warning the Islamic republic would face “increased pressure” if it fails to come clean on its atomic ambitions. Chronology: Developments in standoff
Iran has already been enriching uranium — the most controversial aspect of its nuclear project — for several years at another plant in the central city of Natanz, in defiance of three sets of UN sanctions.
Uranium enrichment is the focus of Western concern that Iran’s ultimate aim is to manufacture a nuclear weapon, a charge strongly denied by Tehran.
Enriched uranium produces fuel for civilian reactors, but in highly extended form can also make the fissile core of an atomic bomb.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has already criticised Iran for what he said was its late disclosure of the Qom facility’s existence, saying such construction must be revealed on the day it begins.
Iran, which informed the agency about a year after building began, said its disclosure obligation only begins 180 days before it places any nuclear material inside the facility.
Mohammad Kosari, deputy head of parliament’s committee on national security and foreign policy, said the inspectors would inspect only the Qom plant.
“If they act within the framework of the law and the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) we have no problem, but if they want to go beyond that it is up to us to decide,” he said, indicating that any additional inspection requests would have to be cleared by Tehran.
On Saturday, Mehr news agency, quoting an unnamed Vienna-based official, said the IAEA inspectors would “compare the information given by Iran (about the Qom plant) with the facility.”
Iranian officials say that at the Qom plant they intend to install new generation centrifuges — the devices which enrich uranium at supersonic speed.
The inspection comes as Obama, presidents Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy pledged support for a separate deal to end the crisis over Iran’s uranium enrichment drive.
The White House said the three “affirmed their full support” for a UN-brokered deal under which Tehran’s existing stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be sent abroad.
Western powers are concerned that the material, if not shipped out, could be further enriched inside Iran to weapons grade.
France has said the deal calls on Iran to transfer 1,200 kilos of LEU from its Natanz plant to Russia by the end of 2009.
Russia would then enrich the material to the higher 19.75 percent needed as fuel for a Tehran research reactor which makes radio-isotopes for medical use.
Diplomats say Moscow would sub-contract to France the process of turning this Russian-enriched uranium into fuel rods for the reactor.
The three presidents spoke after Tehran ignored a Friday deadline to respond to the deal, saying it would make its decision in the next week.
But on Sunday criticism continued inside Iran to the deal, which was originally proposed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself.
Abolfazl Zohrevand, a senior Iranian atomic expert and diplomat, said Western powers want to ship the bulk of Iran’s LEU abroad so it would have to ultimately “suspend” its uranium enrichment drive.