The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced yesterday that Iran intends to start work on nuclear-fuel enrichment -- contrary to previous assertions that its resumed research activities would stop short of this step.
In a statement issued in Vienna, the IAEA said Iran had informed it that the work would be on a "small scale" and would take place at the pilot fuel-enrichment plant at Natanz.
The issue of enrichment is highly sensitive, because Western powers suspect that Iran wants to perfect this process in order to make nuclear weapons -- something that Tehran denies.
Iranian officials announced yesterday that they had indeed removed international seals on some nuclear facilities. But they said production of nuclear fuel would remain suspended.
The response was swift from an alarmed West.
The U.S. said if Iran continues on its current course, it will leave the international community no choice but to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council for possible action.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wondered aloud to reporters whether negotiations between Tehran and Germany, Britain, and France should even continue.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted the issue must be resolved with diplomacy and what he called "non-military means," but expressed his "profound concern" at Iran's decision to proceed.
He said Iran could develop nuclear power but not weapons.
"Iran has an absolute right to develop nuclear power plants," Straw said. "It has no right, indeed, obligations, not to do anything towards developing nuclear weapons facilities, and that is what is at issue.”
But he confirmed that referring Iran to the UN Security Council -- a potential prelude to sanctions -- would be discussed when he saw his French and German counterparts in the coming days.