VIENNA (AFP) – Iran is continuing to enrich uranium, a process potentially used to make an atom bomb, but has slowed down the expansion of its enrichment activities, the UN’s atomic watchdog said Thursday.
“Contrary to the decisions of the (United Nations) Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities,” the International Atomic Energy Agency wrote in its latest report on Tehran’s contested nuclear drive.
Enriched uranium is used to make both nuclear fuel and the fissile material for an atom bomb.
But a senior official close to the agency said that Iran’s expansion of its enrichment plant in Natanz had slowed “considerably.”
“As we’ve seen, the pace has slowed down considerably since the time of the last report,” the official said. “They haven’t given any reason or explanation for that.”
According to the IAEA’s report, there are 3,964 centrifuges actively enriching uranium in Natanz, just 164 more than in November.
On top of those, a further 1,476 centrifuges were undergoing vacuum or dry run tests without nuclear material and an additional 125 had been installed but remained stationary.
In all, IAEA inspectors had been able to verify that Iran has accumulated 839 kilogrammes of low-enriched uranium. And Iran had told the IAEA that it had added another 171 kilogrammes this month.
Estimates vary, but analysts calculate that anywhere between 1,000-1,700 kilogrammes would be needed to convert into high-enriched uranium suitable for one bomb.
Iran’s ambassador to Vienna Ali Asghar Soltanieh told state news agency IRNA that the “latest report had nothing new. Iran will fully cooperate with the IAEA but within the NPT (Non-proliferation Treaty) and its legal commitments.
“The IAEA and its chief … are expected to declare the inspections as normal and put an end to repetitive talks at the board of governors.”
Earlier this week, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei suggested that Tehran’s decision to slow down expansion of its enrichment activities could be “political”, apparently alluding to a possible shift in relations between Iran and the US now that Barack Obama is in the White House.
The IAEA nevertheless conceded that, despite six years of intensive investigation, is no closer to determining whether Iran’s disputed nuclear drive is entirely peaceful as Tehran claims.
“Regrettably, as a result of the continued lack of cooperation by Iran in connection with the remaining issues which give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, the agency has not been able to make substantive progress on these issues,” the report said.
The main sticking point remain are the so-called “alleged studies” — documents collected from a wide range of intelligence sources that appear to suggest Iran may have been trying to develop a nuclear warhead, convert uranium and test high explosives and a missile re-entry vehicle.
Iran has repeatedly dismissed the allegations as “baseless” and the evidence used to back them up as “fabricated” but has done little so far to disprove them.
The investigation has been stymied for over a year, said a senior official close to the IAEA.
“It’s deep stalemate,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
IAEA chief ElBaradei complained earlier this week that Tehran was not cooperating.
“Iran right now is not providing any access, any clarification with regards to the whole area of the possible military dimension,” he said at a conference in Paris.
“They are not following what the Security Council asked us to do, that is ‘please clarify this issue’,” ElBaradei said.
Iran has faced three sets of UN Security Council sanctions over its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment activities.
The United States and other Western powers suspect that the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme is a cover for developing an atomic bomb.
Iran, a leading OPEC oil producer, denies it is seeking nuclear weapons and says it aims to provide energy for its growing population when its reserves of fossil fuels run out.