VIENNA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Thursday it feared Iran may be working now to develop a nuclear-armed missile, as Washington warned Tehran of “consequences” for ignoring international demands to stop its atomic program.
In unusually blunt language, an International Atomic Energy Agency report for the first time suggested Iran was actively pursuing nuclear weapons capability, throwing independent weight behind similar Western suspicions.
The IAEA seemed to be cautiously going public with concerns arising from a classified agency analysis leaked in part last year which concluded that Iran has already honed explosives expertise relevant to a workable nuclear weapon.
The report also confirmed Iran had produced its first small batch of uranium enriched to a higher purity and had set aside the vast bulk of its low-enriched uranium stockpile for this purpose even though this seemed far in excess of possible civilian needs.
The developments will intensify pressure on Iran to prove it is not covertly bent on “weaponizing” enrichment by allowing unfettered access for IAEA inspectors and investigators, something it rejects in protest at U.N. sanctions.
The United States is already leading a push for the U.N. Security Council to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran because of suspicions it may be developing nuclear weapons and has received declarations of support from Russia, which has until now been reluctant to expand sanctions.
“We always said that if Iran failed to live up to those international obligations, that there would be consequences,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama flew to a political event.
Senior Obama administration officials, briefing reporters on the IAEA report, said they were struck by the number of significant technical problems Iran appeared to be encountering and the apparently slow growth of its uranium stockpile.
One of the officials, noting Iran had “increased the level of non-cooperation,” said it may take Tehran longer to build a nuclear weapon because of the technical problems “but the pattern of behavior is one that I think is very disturbing.”
Tehran says its nuclear program is meant only to yield electricity or radio-isotopes for agriculture or medicine. It took an opposing view of the report’s conclusions.
“The IAEA’s new report confirmed Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities and the country’s non-deviation toward military purposes,” Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told the state news agency IRNA.
For several years, the IAEA has been investigating Western intelligence reports indicating Iran has coordinated efforts to process uranium, test explosives at high altitude and revamp a ballistic missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.
In 2007, the United States issued an assessment saying Iran had halted such research in 2003 and probably not resumed it.
But its key Western allies believe Iran continued the program -- and the IAEA report offered independent support for that perception for the first time.
“The information available to the agency is extensive ... broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organizations involved,” the report said.
“Altogether this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”
IAEA’s new chief, Yukiya Amano, is seen as more inclined to confront Iran than his predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, who retired on December 1.
“Now we see from (available intelligence) that certain activities may have continued after 2004,” said a senior official close to the IAEA. “We want to find out from Iran what they’ve had to do with these nuclear explosive-related activities.”
The U.S. director of National Intelligence concluded last year that Iran would not be technically able to devise a nuclear weapon before 2013. But a new intelligence estimate is due soon.
Iran has dismissed the intelligence reports as fabrication but failed to provide its own evidence. Tehran has boycotted contact with the IAEA on the matter for 18 months.
The report, to be considered at a March 1-5 meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation board, said it was vital for Iran to cooperate with IAEA investigators “without further delay.”
Last week, Iran announced a start to higher-scale enrichment, saying it was frustrated at the collapse of an IAEA-backed plan for big powers to provide it with fuel rods for nuclear medicine made from uranium refined to 20 percent purity.
The IAEA report complained that Iran had begun feeding low-enriched uranium (LEU) into centrifuges for higher refinement before inspectors could get to the scene in the Natanz pilot enrichment facility.
“We have expressed our dissatisfaction,” said the senior official close to the IAEA. “It is of paramount importance to have this information in a timely way to make sure there are no undeclared activities or facilities in Iran.”
The big powers accused Iran of reneging on an agreement to ship out two-thirds of its LEU reserve to be turned into fuel rods for the medical reactor. This would have prevented Iran retaining enough of the material to fuel a nuclear weapon, if it were refined to about 90 percent purity.
Only France, one party to the U.N. draft deal, and Argentina are known to possess the technology. So analysts ask why Iran would enrich uranium well above its needs, except to lay the groundwork for producing bomb-grade uranium.
The report also said Iran increased its LEU stockpile by some 250 kg (550 pounds) to 2,060 kg since November -- enough for one or two nuclear bombs if enriched to 90 percent purity.
Iran had earmarked 1.95 tons of its LEU for enrichment up to 20 percent, it said, a significant escalation as further refinement to the weapons-grade threshold would need only around six months.
“This quantity is far in excess of the (medical reactor‘s) needs,” David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, said in an online commentary.
But the IAEA report also attested to stagnating capacity at Natanz. It said the number of operating centrifuges had dropped to 3,772 from nearly 4,000.
This was well under half of all the machines installed in Natanz, the report indicated. Analysts and diplomats close to the IAEA say Iran may be having serious mechanical problems in keeping thousands of antiquated centrifuges running in unison.
The U.S. official said the Iranians were accumulating LEU “at a fairly low rate compared to what they should be able to do on paper” and that Tehran seemed to be “at least several years” away from accumulating enough 20 percent enriched uranium that could then be converted into bomb-grade material.
But the senior official close to the IAEA said Iran seemed to be shifting focus to a second enrichment site at Fordow near Qom, which Iran has said will preserve the program if foes bomb Natanz and be operated with advanced centrifuges able to enrich two to three times as fast.
Tucked deep inside a mountain bunker to ward off attack, the plant at Fordow is scheduled to open in 2011.
Editing by Eric Beech and John O'Callaghan