The UN's nuclear watchdog has confirmed that it has found particles of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium in environmental samples taken at an Iranian nuclear facility. Iran denies enriching the uranium itself and continues to insist that its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes.
Prague, 27 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Experts from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency have found traces of weapons-grade uranium at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility south of Tehran.
Confirmation of the find by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog came in a 10-page report that was leaked to international media yesterday by sources outside of the IAEA.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes. Ali-Akbar Salehi, Tehran's representative to the IAEA, says the equipment was "contaminated" with enriched uranium before it was purchased from an undisclosed country for Natanz.
But diplomats from countries that have accused Iran of developing a secret nuclear weapons program say the report indicates Iran may be closer to building nuclear weapons than the IAEA had previously thought.
Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for the IAEA, discussed the findings today with RFE/RL. She stressed that additional information is still required about Tehran's statements that there have been no uranium enrichment activities in Iran involving nuclear material.
"Traces of highly enriched uranium were, indeed, found at the nuclear site at Natanz. It could indicate that they had already enriched uranium," Fleming says. "But it could also indicate that the [explanation] the Iranians gave was correct -- that the [equipment] they imported from abroad had been contaminated at another nuclear site. So we don't really know right now what the origin of these traces of highly enriched uranium is. This is something that we are going to be investigating and hope to find an answer for in the coming weeks."
If further study by the IAEA determines that the uranium was enriched at an Iranian facility, Fleming says it would be strong evidence that Iran is, indeed, secretly trying to build nuclear weapons.
"Highly enriched uranium is the ingredient for nuclear weapons. It really has no place in any civilian program, except maybe for research. But no one wants to see it anywhere. Enriched uranium is necessary for use in nuclear reactors. But highly enriched uranium is way beyond that and generally has only one purpose," she says.
Fleming explained how the IAEA experts were able to find traces of the enriched uranium at the Natanz facility:
"Nuclear material leaves fingerprints. And these can actually stay on the surface of things for up to decades. And we have a very sophisticated technique that can detect traces of nuclear material on surfaces once it is tested. This is what we did. We did the sampling technique and found these traces," Fleming says.
The IAEA report was distributed to members of the IAEA Board of Governors ahead of a regularly scheduled meeting due to begin on 8 September. Fleming says many countries will have strong views about the findings. She says the report was circulated in order to give those countries time to formulate their reaction.
"We will be, as the report indicates, seeking understanding that we need several more weeks or even months to be at a point where we feel the investigation can be called completed," she says.
In broad terms, the report was more positive about Iran's cooperation with UN inspectors than a IAEA report released in June. It says Iran has stepped up cooperation with the agency in recent months -- including its recent decision to allowed access to a suspected weapons site at the Kalaye Electric Company.
"We did get access to the Kalaye Electric Company. There had been accusations that [enrichment equipment was] tested there, using nuclear material that would have to have been declared to us. We had requested to take these sophisticated samples from that facility and were finally given access a couple of weeks ago. However, we did find once we arrived that the facility had been modified, which could have an impact on the results of our samples. Construction had been done. It had been rebuilt in a way that could have consequences on our ability to take accurate samples," Fleming says.
Fleming also confirmed that the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, was surprised in February when he visited Iran and saw for himself how well developed the country's nuclear program has become:
"This time last year, the world knew practically nothing about Iran's nuclear program. There were a lot of suspicions and accusations. What was revealed was that they had a very sophisticated uranium enrichment project. This facility was visited last February by Mr. ElBaradei, and he was quite surprised to see how far they'd come -- how sophisticated it was," Fleming says.
Fleming insists that the new IAEA report is both fair and factual: "We would characterize it as a balanced, objective and technical report. It is highly factual, basically, just providing the details on the results of these past weeks since the last report in June. It does indicate that there are possibly more questions yet to be answered than there are answers to questions that we previously had. Even though we are beyond midway in our investigation, we still have quite a way to go. It does not offer any kind of judgment at this point. It just lays out the facts."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker declined to comment specifically on the IAEA report for now. But Reeker urged Iran to immediately implement an Additional Protocol that would allow broader and more stringent IAEA inspections. The European Union has also urged Tehran to implement the Additional Protocol.
In Tehran, the official news agency IRNA quotes Iran's representative to the IAEA as saying today that Tehran is ready to sign the Additional Protocol. But Salehi also reportedly said Iran first wants to clarify issues in the protocol related to so-called "undeclared inspections" in order to preserve its sovereignty.
Some diplomats say Tehran's position on the protocol appears unchanged and that it is unlikely Iran is ready to sign now.