TEHRAN (AFP) – UN inspectors will enter Iran’s controversial second uranium enrichment plant on Sunday, two days after Tehran postponed its response to a UN deal on supplying the Islamic republic with nuclear fuel.
Media said the team will spend three days in the country as it inspects the facility being built inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom, south of the capital.
Tehran’s disclosure of the new plant to the IAEA on September 21 triggered widespread global outrage, with US President Barack Obama warning Iran would face “increased pressure” if it does not come clean on its nuclear activities.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei criticised Tehran for what he said was its late disclosure of the facility’s existence.
“Based on the IAEA regulations, all countries should inform the IAEA on the day they begin construction” of a nuclear plant, he said.
Iran, which informed the agency about a year after building began, said its disclosure obligation only began 180 days before it placed any nuclear material inside the facility.
Uranium enrichment lies at the heart of Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. It produces fuel for civilian reactors, but in highly extended form can also make the fissile core of an atomic weapon.
Western powers led by Washington suspect Tehran is enriching uranium with the ultimate aim of making the bomb, a charge Iran strongly denies.
Iran has been enriching uranium at a separate facility in Natanz for several years in defiance of three sets of UN sanctions.
Officials claim that new generation centrifuges — the devices which spin at supersonic speed to enrich uranium — would be installed at Qom.
Mehr news agency, quoting an unnamed Vienna-based official, said the inspectors will visit only the Qom facility.
“The IAEA representatives will compare the information given by Iran (about the Qom plant) with the facility during their three-day visit,” the official said.
The inspection has gained further significance after Tehran delayed on Friday its response to an IAEA deal under which Iran would ship its existing stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia.
World powers are concerned that the material, if not shipped out, could be further enriched in-house by Iran to weapons grade.
The full details of the proposed deal have not been released, but France has said it calls on Iran to transfer 1,200 kilos of LEU from its Natanz plant to Russia by the end of 2009.
Russia would then enrich the material to the higher 19.75 percent needed for use in a Tehran research reactor which makes radio-isotopes for medical use.
Diplomats say Moscow would sub-contract to France the process of turning this Russian-enriched uranium into fuel rods for the reactor.
Iran’s response to the IAEA proposal was due on Friday, but Tehran said then it will give its verdict next week.
IAEA envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh said Tehran was still studying the deal, and “after final evaluation, I will give the result to Mr ElBaradei when I return to Vienna next week.”
Russia, France and the United States have all approved the deal, but Washington has said it is prepared to wait a few days for Iran’s decision.
Iranian lawmaker Alaeddin Borujerdi, who heads parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, said Iran’s LEU should be retained and used in domestic power plants.
“It is better to buy 20 percent enriched fuel and keep the 3.5 percent for our domestic power plants … rather than giving it to those countries,” ISNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Reza Amrollahi, Iran’s former nuclear chief, also questioned turning over the entire 1,200 kilos, saying the research reactors only 30 kilos.
“So what is going to happen to the rest of it? And what’s the guarantee to receive the 20 percent enriched fuel?”
Tehran insists it will still not stop enriching uranium even if it does approve the IAEA offer.
“As we have said before, we will not give up our rights,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, said this week referring to Tehran’s uranium enrichment rights.