VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has made important strides towards clarifying past nuclear activities but key questions remain unresolved and it has significantly expanded uranium enrichment, a U.N. watchdog report said on Thursday.
The findings may open Iran to harsher U.N. sanctions due to Western suspicions it is secretly striving to make atom bombs and its defiance of U.N. demands to suspend enrichment.
Iran says it only wants electricity from atomic energy.
The International Atomic Energy Agency report said Iran had provided much documentation and allowed interviews with nuclear officials involved in developing centrifuges in the 1980s and 90s with designs and parts obtained from the black market.
Centrifuges refine uranium for power plant fuel or bombs.
“The agency has been able to conclude that answers provided (by Iran) on the declared past P-1 and P-2 centrifuge programs are consistent with its findings,” the report said. But more verification was needed to ensure declarations were complete.
Further, the IAEA remained unable to verify Iran was not militarizing current enrichment work at secret sites as it was still restricting inspector visits to the few facilities of its declared civilian uranium enrichment program.
At workshops off limits to inspectors, the report said, Iran has begun mechanical testing of advanced P-2 centrifuges, which could allow it to enrich uranium 2-3 times faster than the model used now. Many such workshops are under military control.
“As a result, the agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current nuclear program is diminishing,” said IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei’s report, which was sent to the U.N. Security Council.
“Iran’s cooperation has been reactive rather than proactive. Active cooperation and full transparency are indispensable for full ... implementation of the work plan,” it said, referring to the process of answering questions in phases agreed in August.
In a disclosure likely to alarm the West, the report said Iran’s number of centrifuges enriching uranium had soared 10-fold in the past year to 3,000, a level that could start industrial output of nuclear fuel.
But Iran was running the centrifuges at very low capacity, a senior U.N. official familiar with the report said.
Even if Iran fed uranium into 3,000 centrifuges at maximum rate for long periods, it would need about 18 months to produce enough fissile material for one bomb, the official said.
Washington said the report showed Iran still defying the international community and giving only “partial answers” and dragging them out. As a result the United States would proceed with allies to draft broader sanctions at the United Nations.
Iran said the report had vindicated it by showing accusations against its nuclear aspirations were “baseless” and there would be no legal basis for pursuing the matter at the U.N. Security Council.
U.N. officials familiar with the IAEA’s inquiry said Iran’s new cooperation was groundbreaking after years of stonewalling.
“This is an important step forward. We had two years of no movement and now we’re getting answers,” said one senior U.N. official. Another said: “Of course it’s not enough, but it does create more confidence for the future.”
In coming weeks, the IAEA will seek explanations from Iran about traces of weapons-grade enriched uranium found at research sites and intelligence pointing to links between uranium processing, explosives tests and a missile warhead design.
World powers agreed on September 28 to draft new sanctions for a vote by the U.N. Security Council unless the IAEA report, and a pending European Union report on talks meant to nudge Iran into a suspension, both yielded a “positive outcome”.
The report may contain enough positive elements to widen the gap between the four big Western powers (the United States, France, Britain and Germany) and Russia and China over what to do next — act quickly or grant more time for Iran to come clean with IAEA investigators.
Iran has threatened to stop cooperating if hit with more sanctions. Russia and China, both with Security Council vetoes, want to preserve strong trade ties with Iran and say isolating the Islamic Republic could lead to wider Middle East conflict.
If Security Council avenues remain blocked, European Union states could consider financial sanctions to back up a broad U.S. embargo against the Islamic Republic.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Edmund Blair in Tehran; Editing by Stephen Weeks