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Iran Resumes Full Conversion Operations | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Iranian security official, dressed in protective clothing, walks inside the Uranium Conversion Facility, just outside the city of Isfahan (AP)

An Iranian security official, dressed in protective clothing, walks inside the Uranium Conversion Facility, just outside the city of Isfahan (AP)

An Iranian security official, dressed in protective clothing, walks inside the Uranium Conversion Facility, just outside the city of Isfahan (AP)

ISFAHAN, Iran, AP -A defiant Iran resumed full operations at its uranium conversion plant Wednesday, as Europe and the United States struggled to find a way to stop the Islamic republic from pushing ahead with a nuclear program they fear will lead to weapons of mass destruction.

With United Nations inspectors watching, Iranian officials removed U.N. seals that had been placed voluntarily on equipment at the facility eight months ago when Tehran agreed to freeze most of its nuclear program.

Technicians then immediately resumed work on the process that turns raw uranium into gas for enrichment.

The breaking of the seals at the facility in the mountains outside the southern city of Isfahan was the latest move of Iranian brinkmanship over its nuclear ambitions. The hard-line government”s determination to move ahead left Europe and the United States scrambling over what to do next.

Iran has rejected European proposals to limit its program in return for economic incentives and shrugged off threats of U.N. sanctions. Any attempt to impose sanctions could face a veto in the U.N. Security Council from Russia and China, which have close ties with Iran.

Tehran”s delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Sirus Nasseri warned Europe and the United States that referring Iran to the Security Council over the resumption of operations at its uranium conversaion plant, would be a step toward &#34the path of confrontation.&#34

Europe and the United States were left appealing to Iran to reconsider the proposals and waiting for Tehran to make its own offer in negotiations, while diplomats at the U.N. nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency — debated how strongly to rebuke Iran.

The 35-nation board of governors of the IAEA canceled a session tentatively planned for Wednesday, and instead diplomats were holding private on how best to persuade Iran to suspend its latest nuclear activities. A resolution was introduced Wednesday evening and will be discussed at a board meeting Thursday, said IAEA spokesman Peter Rickwood. He had no details on the resolution.

Matthew Boland, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the IAEA, described the breaking of the seals as &#34yet another sign of Iran”s disregard for international concerns.&#34

&#34We strongly support (Germany, Britain and France”s) efforts to convince Iran to stop its dangerous activities,&#34 he said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder”s office said it &#34hopes Iran will still take the sensible path and look seriously and constructively at the offer from the (Europeans).&#34 The French Foreign Ministry urged Tehran to stop work at the plant &#34to restore confidence.&#34

Europe has hoped to persuade Iran to accept fuel from abroad for a nuclear energy program.

But Iran”s reopening of the Isfahan plant underlined its insistence on developing the entire fuel cycle on its own. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, aiming only to produce electricity.

On Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he was willing to continue negotiations and would put forward his own proposals. However, Iran has said it won”t restart uranium enrichment without a negotiated deal with Europe. Enrichment can produce nuclear fuel for a reactor or material for a bomb.

The Isfahan facility carries out an earlier step in the process, converting yellowcake — raw uranium — into uranium hexaflouride gas, UF-6, the feedstock that in the next stage is fed into centrifuges for enrichment.

The facility covers an area of over 150 acres, spread along a range of mountains outside the city, separated from the main road by metal fences and trees and surrounded by radar stations and anti-aircraft batteries.

On Wednesday, security was tight around the complex, with plainclothes security agents shooing journalists away from the front gates.

Parts of the facility were built in tunnels in the mountains as protection from airstrikes. Tehran learned a lesson from the 1981 Israeli airstrike against Iraq”s main nuclear reactor. Iran has spread its facilities over several locations, each with underground installations.

Work at some parts of the Isfahan plant began Monday, but other, more sensitive units — including the one that ultimately produces UF-6 — had remained under U.N. seal. Iran notified the IAEA on Tuesday that it wanted the seals removed — saying the IAEA could either do so itself or authorize Iranian officials to break them under IAEA supervision.

&#34The IAEA said in a letter to us today that it gives (the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran) permission to remove the seals and fully restart activities at the facility,&#34 Mohammad Saeedi, Iran”s deputy nuclear chief, told state-run television Wednesday.

Before the November suspension, the Isfahan facility converted some 37 tons of yellowcake into UF-4, a preliminary stage. Experts say that amount could yield 200 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, enough to make five crude nuclear weapons.

The removal of the seals Wednesday means the facility can start converting that UF-4 to UF-6, as well as convert more yellowcake from scratch.