VIENNA,(Reuters) – Iran has begun processing a new batch of uranium despite Western pressure on it to halt sensitive atomic work, possibly harming attempts to defuse a standoff over its nuclear aims, a diplomat said on Wednesday.
Iran had notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late October that it intended to process a new batch of uranium at its Isfahan uranium conversion plant but did not start the work last week as originally planned.
"Conversion has resumed," the diplomat, who is close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Reuters.
A spokesman for the U.N. nuclear watchdog did not confirm the statement, but said IAEA inspectors were in Isfahan.
Western countries suspect Iran of seeking nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic programme, which Tehran denies, saying it wants only to generate electricity.
A U.S. State Dept official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Obviously, it”s a development we view with concern."
The official said the move "clearly contravenes commitments" Iran made to the European Union and contravenes a Sept. 24 IAEA board of governors resolution that called on Iran to suspend all enrichment activity.
But the U.S. official added: "It”s not unexpected. It really is consistent with a pattern of behaviour from Iran which is to be both forthcoming and defiant."
The new uranium processing comes before a Nov. 24 meeting of the IAEA board of governors which could report Iran to the U.N. Security Council. The council has the power to impose sanctions.
"This is a rebuff to efforts to create some space to continue negotiations," the diplomat close to the IAEA said. "It looks like Iran is confident the board will opt not to refer them."
Three European Union powers — Germany, Britain and France — which led now-stalled nuclear talks with Iran, and the United States have tentatively approved a Russian proposal to overcome a stalemate over Iran”s nuclear project.
The plan would allow Iran to continue nuclear fuel production if it shifted its most critical stage, uranium enrichment, to Russia as part of a joint venture.
Enrichment, the step that follows conversion, purifies uranium to the level needed to fuel power plants or, if enriched further, to the level needed to fuel a nuclear weapon.
Iran had told the IAEA that this conversion batch would involve 150 drums of raw yellowcake uranium. Once converted into uranium hexafluoride gas, the feed material for centrifuges, and enriched, this would be enough for an atom bomb.
The diplomat did not give details on exactly what steps had been taken at the Isfahan plant other than to say the process of conversion had begun.
Tehran, while saying it prefers resuming negotiations to sliding into open confrontation, has reiterated a resolve to develop its own nuclear fuel cycle, citing its sovereign right as a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Diplomats say IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is considering flying to Iran to try to nail down the Russian compromise plan, but only if it will win the backing of major players.
While the EU3 and Washington have pushed to send Iran to the Security Council, Russia and China have resisted — and as permanent Council members could veto any punitive steps.
ElBaradei is to distribute a new report on investigations into Iran”s nuclear programme to the 35 member states of the agency”s board on Friday, setting the stage for Nov. 24.
An EU diplomat in Washington said Iran”s move would not work in Tehran”s favour at the IAEA meeting next week".
The diplomat said the move was "embarrassing" for Russia, which sent a delegation to Tehran last week to try to persuade Iran to accept a compromise proposal on the nuclear issue.