US says Iran nearing atomic bomb capacity

The United States said on Wednesday Iran was nearing the ability to make atom bombs by stockpiling enriched uranium and, with European Union allies, prodded Tehran to engage in talks now on its nuclear ambitions.

Western powers spoke at a United Nations nuclear watchdog meeting as Iran’s state television announced that it would hand over a long-awaited package of proposals for talks ”very soon” amid Western moves to consider much harsher sanctions against Tehran.

”We have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear weapons option,” US envoy Glyn Davies told the 35 nations on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors.

”Iran is now either very near or in possession already of sufficient low-enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon if the decision were made to further enrich it to weapons-grade … [This] moves Iran closer to a dangerous and destabilising possible breakout capacity,” Davies said.

The US national intelligence chief said earlier this year Iran probably would be unable technically to ”weaponise” enrichment before 2013.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said Iran’s threat has been exaggerated. But Davies’ remark pointed to growing Western disquiet about Iran’s nuclear advances.

An August 28 IAEA report said Iran had somewhat improved cooperation with UN inspectors by approving tighter monitoring of its Natanz enrichment plant and restoring limited IAEA access to a heavy-water reactor site of proliferation concern.

But it also said Iran had increased its number of installed centrifuge machines by 1 000 to 8 300, boosting potential enrichment capacity, and was still blocking an IAEA inquiry into allegations it has tried to ”weaponise” the enrichment process.

Except for Iran’s two new gestures of cooperation, ”On all … issues relevant to Iran’s nuclear programme, there is stalemate,” ElBaradei told IAEA governors on Monday.

Iran has said its package for world powers addresses global ”challenges” but also reaffirmed an unwillingness to negotiate on its campaign to enrich uranium, a process Western powers suspect Iran will eventually put to making atom bombs.

Iran says it wants only electricity from enrichment.

Britain, France and Germany, among the six powers dealing with Iran’s nuclear challenge, said Tehran’s ”persistent defiance and point-blank refusal” to suspend enrichment, and its avoidance of negotiations, as demanded by UN Security Council resolutions since 2006, was unacceptable.

”Iran’s responses so far have been neither positive nor satisfactory,” German Ambassador Ruediger Luedeking said, speaking for France and Britain.

”We again call on Iran to engage in meaningful negotiations with a view to achieving a comprehensive diplomatic solution. Iran should make use of the window of opportunity now,” he said.

”We have extended a hand and we appeal to Iran to take it.” — Reuters

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