VIENNA (Reuters) -Iran was due to get access on Wednesday to sealed parts of an uranium processing plant, allowing Tehran to move closer to resuming production of enriched uranium that Washington and the EU fear may be used to make an atomic bomb.
As Iran prepared to restart the key sections of the plant at Isfahan, the European Union”s three biggest powers tried to persuade all 35 nations on the board of the U.N. nuclear watchdog to warn Tehran to stop the work.
The watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sealed sensitive areas of the plant after Tehran agreed to suspend all nuclear fuel work last November as part of an agreement with Britain, Germany and France to ease tensions after the IAEA found Iran had hidden nuclear work for years.
IAEA officials are expected to oversee the removal of the seals at Isfahan following the installation of surveillance cameras since under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has signed, Tehran may enrich uranium if it can prove it is for peaceful purposes.
But the EU3 say the only way to prove peaceful intentions is not to enrich at all and renounce all sensitive technologies.
The IAEA board held a brief emergency meeting on Tuesday but quickly adjourned to give the three a day or two to negotiate with other key members of the 35-nation IAEA board about the text of an IAEA resolution urging Iran to resume the suspension.
Iran denies accusations that its nuclear program is a front for bomb-making. It says it needs to develop nuclear power as an alternative energy source to meet booming electricity demand and preserve its oil and gas reserves for export.
Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran”s Atomic Energy Organization, said on Tuesday the IAEA had already installed four surveillance cameras at Isfahan to ensure no uranium is shifted away from the plant for any covert weapons work.
"The IAEA”s job has been finished and the facility is ready," he said on state television Tuesday night. "(On Wednesday) the seals will be removed and the facility will continue its activities."
Mohammad Saeedi, a senior member of Iran”s delegation at a crisis meeting of the IAEA board, told Reuters on Tuesday the IAEA seals would be removed by noon (0730 GMT) on Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, Ali Agamohammadi, the spokesman for Iran”s Supreme National Security Council said the removal was still on track. "We will remove the seals under the IAEA”s supervision," he told Reuters.
There was no word from Iranian officials later on Wednesday on what was causing the delay.
Iran”s began work at less sensitive areas of the plant at Isfahan on Monday, despite warnings from EU officials that it could be referred to the U.N. Security Council for punitive action for having earlier hidden its nuclear work.
The plant turns uranium concentrate into a gas that can then be enriched into reactor or bomb fuel.
Iran”s new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended the resumption of work at Isfahan but said Tehran wanted to continue negotiations with the EU, adding that he had new ideas on how to resolve the nuclear standoff with the West.
"I have new initiatives and proposals which I will present after my government takes office," he said in a telephone conversation with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the semi-official ISNA students news agency reported.
President Bush told reporters in Crawford, Texas, the Iranian president”s comments were a positive sign.
"That”s a positive development," Bush said after Ahmadinejad spoke. Bush, however, said he was still deeply suspicious that Iran was intent on developing a nuclear weapon.
France”s foreign minister called on Iran to come back to the negotiating table.
"It”s still possible to negotiate. But the Iranian response clearly isn”t satisfactory," Philippe Douste-Blazy said in an interview in the newspaper Le Parisien.
"The European troika is ready. We call on Iran to return to the negotiating table. We are holding out our hand. Iran must accept it," he said.
But conservative lawmaker Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moqaddam, speaking in parliament on Wednesday, called for more radical action. He said Iran should follow North Korea”s example and withdraw from the NPT, the global pact against the spread of atomic weapons.
He said the treaty had been signed and ratified under the monarchy, which was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic revolution. He added that since the EU did not adhere to the NPT by accepting Iran”s rights, then Iran should ignore it too.