UNITED NATIONS, (AP) – Experts from the United States and five other powers leading efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program plan to meet within the week following a U.N. report that Tehran has expanded its uranium enrichment program.
China’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, said the talks will focus on how to bring Iran back to negotiations and what the Security Council could do if Tehran doesn’t budge. Paris was a possible location for the meeting.
The council imposed sanctions on Iran in December for refusing to suspend enrichment, and modestly increased them in March after Tehran stepped up the program, which can produce nuclear weapons. Iran responded by giving the U.N. nuclear watchdog less access to its nuclear facilities.
The restricted report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, obtained by The Associated Press, not only said Iran’s enrichment program was expanding, it also warned for the first time that the agency’s knowledge of Tehran’s nuclear activities was shrinking.
Those findings could lead to fresh sanctions, but Security Council members said the six nations — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — would first weigh their options.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is hoping to meet with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, at the end of the month, possibly in Madrid.
“I think efforts are being made to encourage the Iranians to talk,” Liu said.
The key countries have been consulting through different channels, he said, and “I think the six will have another meeting at experts level by the end of the month.”
Diplomats said any action could be delayed until after the June 6-8 summit of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations, which includes all six countries except China, as well as Japan, Italy and Canada.
Formal negotiations collapsed last year after Iran rejected incentives offered by the six world powers because the package required it to freeze uranium enrichment.
In Washington, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the report showed “Iran is thumbing its nose at the international community.”
Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s chief IAEA representative, suggested Washington, France and Britain were responsible for the deteriorating situation because they pushed the hardest for Security Council involvement.
Uranium gas, spun in linked centrifuges, can result in either low-enriched fuel suitable to generate power, or the weapons-grade material that forms the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
Iran insists its nuclear pursuits are peaceful, aimed at producing energy, but Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington’s U.N. envoy, said that claim isn’t credible given Iran’s lack of cooperation on uranium enrichment and the heavy water reactor it is building.
The U.N. report noted Iran’s refusal to allow U.N. inspectors to visit the heavy water reactor or related facilities. Once completed, sometime in the next decade, that complex will produce plutonium, which, like enriched uranium, can be used to make nuclear weapons.
“The time has come to take a look at additional pressure, to ratchet up the pressure to bring about a change in Iranian calculation,” Khalilzad said.
In a show of American military strength, ships carrying 17,000 sailors and Marines moved into the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, just days before U.S.-Iran talks on Iraq.
The war games — which culminate in an amphibious landing exercise in Kuwait, just a few miles from Iran — appeared to be a clear warning to Iran ahead of the talks and possible U.N sanctions.
The U.N. report said Iran has 1,312 centrifuges churning out enriched uranium at its Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran. Another 328 had been assembled and an additional 328 were being built as of May 13, it said. A year ago, Iran had just 40 centrifuges at the site.
Iran has said it wants to have 54,000 centrifuges running at Natanz, the only site now open to full IAEA monitoring. That would be enough to produce dozens of nuclear weapons a year.
South Africa’s U.N. Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said the challenge for the council is to sit down and discuss “how we negotiate this one out. Otherwise, we’ll just be escalating, and escalating endlessly.”
During negotiations on the last sanctions resolution in March, South Africa called for a 90-day “time-out” on sanctions to defuse tensions.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei proposed the strategy in January, but said Iran should suspend its enrichment activities during the moratorium, during which the two sides would try to work out a deal not only covering nuclear issues but security, economic and political concerns as well.
Kumalo said when he made the proposal in March for a 90-day time-out “we were said to be sort of crazy, but I think now people should rethink that.”