Iran breaks UN seals, resumes uranium conversion

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

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

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 programme in return for economic incentives and shrugged off threats of UN sanctions. Any attempt to impose sanctions could face a veto in the UN Security Council from the Russian Federation and China, which have close ties with Iran.

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 UN nuclear watchdog—the International Atomic Energy Agency—debated how strongly to rebuke Iran.

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

Matthew Boland, a spokesperson for the US mission to the IAEA, described the breaking of the seals as “yet another sign of Iran’s disregard for international concerns”.

“We strongly support [Germany, Britain and France’s] efforts to convince Iran to stop its dangerous activities,” he said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s office said it “hopes Iran will still take the sensible path and look seriously and constructively at the offer from the [Europeans].”

The French Foreign Ministry urged Tehran to stop work at the plant “to restore

confidence”.

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

But Iran’s reopening of the Isfahan plant underlined its insistence on developing the entire fuel cycle on its own. Iran says its nuclear programme 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 60ha, 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 on Monday, but other, more sensitive units—including the one that ultimately produces UF-6—had remained under UN seal. Iran notified the IAEA on Tuesday that it wanted the seals removed—saying the IAEA could either do so itself or authorise Iranian officials to break them under IAEA supervision.

“The IAEA said in a letter to us today that it gives [the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran] permission to remove the seals and fully restart activities at the facility,” Mohammad Saeedi, Iran’s deputy nuclear chief, told state-run television on Wednesday.

Before the November suspension, the Isfahan facility converted about 37 tonnes of yellowcake into UF-4, a preliminary stage. Experts say that amount could yield 90kg of weapons-grade uranium, enough to make five crude nuclear weapons.

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

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