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Iran could revive atom bomb bid due curbs on IAEA: U.S.

VIENNA (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday that what U.S. intelligence found to be a secret Iranian nuclear arms program halted in 2003 could easily be revived because of later curbs on U.N. inspections in the country.

An Iranian technician works inside a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, about 1,215 km (755 miles) south of Tehran, April 3, 2007. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

The U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency challenged suggestions that the U.S. intelligence finding disclosed on December 3 reduced the urgency of reining in Iran via IAEA investigations, U.N. sanctions and steely diplomacy.

Tehran says it has never sought nuclear energy for anything but electricity. But it has a history of dodging IAEA scrutiny and is trying to stockpile enriched uranium in defiance of U.N. resolutions demanding a halt.

U.S. envoy Gregory Schulte said Washington’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) contained “new evidence” of a concerted, clandestine atom bomb project in Iran and there was no reason to relax even if it was shelved four years ago.

“Iran’s leaders could choose to restart that program ... and there is no certainty the IAEA would know, particularly with the (IAEA) director-general twice warning us that IAEA knowledge of Iran’s current activities is diminishing. That is a matter of grave concern,” he told reporters invited to a briefing.

Schulte was referring to restrictions on IAEA inspections beyond a few declared nuclear sites, imposed by Iran in early 2006 in retaliation for U.N. Security Council steps to slap the first of two sets of sanctions on Tehran.

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“The technology that Iran is mastering today for enrichment, a capability not necessary for Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program, could be readily applied to building a bomb, should Iran’s leaders so decide,” he said.

The NIE said Iran was trying to develop technical know-how applicable to producing bombs but had halted an outright weapons program, sharply contradicting President George W. Bush’s position that Iran was actively trying to develop an atomic weapon and thereby raising a threat of “World War Three”.

Schulte also said the NIE’s findings made it more, not less, urgent that Iran cooperate quickly and completely with an IAEA inquiry to resolve questions about past Iranian nuclear activity to help defuse mistrust.

IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei told the agency’s 35-nation board of governors last month that he wanted to wrap up the transparency process by the end of the year. But IAEA diplomats said this week it would run into January and February.

“We still expect full disclosure but now we think they (Iran) have even more to disclose as a result of the NIE,” said Schulte. “We are waiting to see if Iran’s leaders are ready to confess ... to past weapons-related activities.”

Western diplomats said the IAEA appeared to be having some difficulty extracting credible Iranian explanations for traces of bomb-grade enriched uranium found at research centers.

“Iran is having to be nudged and pushed. The process is ongoing but well short of complete. Iran is a master at procrastination,” said a senior European diplomat.

“The (slippage of the transparency plan timeline) is no big deal or problem. It takes time to work on complex technical issues,” countered a senior diplomat close to the IAEA.

“The process is on track,” another told Reuters.

Western officials are concerned Iran has calculated that partial cooperation will be enough to preserve Russian and Chinese opposition to a Western push for harsher U.N. sanctions.

The NIE’s finding that there was now no Iranian bomb quest may make agreement on tough sanctions even harder, analysts say.

editing by Tim Pearce

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