Iran starts new work on uranium

Iran starts new work on uranium

Iran began to enrich a second batch of uranium in its research plant this week on the same day that world powers delivered a negotiating offer to Tehran conditioned on its suspension of nuclear activities, according to a report released yesterday by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The timing of the nuclear work, which Western diplomats suggested was politically calculated, appeared to signal that Iran would fight to continue enriching uranium despite the demands by the international community.

“On the timing, knowing the Iranians, nothing is left to chance,” said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity.

In an offer delivered to Tehran on Tuesday by Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Iran would get a generous package of incentives — including trade and economic incentives and help building light water reactors to provide electrical power — in exchange for giving up its enrichment work.

Iran reintroduced uranium gas into its centrifuges and started to process a new batch of raw uranium into UF6, the uranium gas that is the feedstock for enriched uranium.

There is no deadline for a response to the offer of incentives, but Western diplomats have said they expect Iran to answer in weeks, not months, and Iranian officials are preparing to work hard to win their position. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will meet next week with President Hu Jintao of China, whose government is one of six trying to strike a deal with Iran.

In Tehran yesterday, Ahmadinejad said his regime is ready for talks, but he sent mixed signals on how much is open for negotiation and suggested Tehran has the upper hand in its showdown with the West.

Ahmadinejad repeated Iran’s position that uranium enrichment is an untouchable national right, a clear jab at the West two days after Iran received a package of economic and technological incentives to suspend the program.

But he also offered some signs of flexibility without specifically mentioning the proposal. In a speech at an industrial city, he said Iran would hold talks on “mutual concerns” with foreign powers — including the United States — if they took place “free from threats.”

Diplomats and specialists agree that nothing will be harder than finding a way to satisfy all the parties on the issue of enrichment. The Iranians have said repeatedly that they will not give up their rights under Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Uranium enrichment is the process in which uranium gas is spun in centrifuges to purify it into fissile material, which can either be used for civilian purposes or, if more highly purified, to make a bomb. Western countries believe Iran wants to build a bomb; the Iranians say that they only want technology for peaceful purposes.

The report from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, which was sent to the organization’s 35-member board of governors in advance of its meeting next week, contained “nothing earthshaking,” said a senior UN official. However, it outlined a still long list of questions that Iran has not answered about its nuclear program, which was clandestine for 18 years until it was divulged by an Iranian opposition group.

However, the report disputed information from earlier this spring that suggested Iran had stopped its enrichment activities. According to the report, after an initial batch of uranium gas was fed into the centrifuges in early April, which allowed the Iranians to produce grams of low enriched uranium, the Iranians stopped feeding in the gas except for two centrifuges.

It continued to spin its 164-centrifuge cascade, but without the gas at its pilot plant at Natanz in Iran’s southern desert. The spinning of centrifuges — with or without gas — is a key technological exercise since it is crucial for engineers to be sure that the centrifuges will spin stably and consistently before undertaking large-scale enrichment, said nuclear specialists .

According to a senior UN official, Iran is continuing to construct two more centrifuge cascades at the pilot facility and has begun to do basic construction work for the industrial facility.

The IAEA report also underscored serious questions about the contamination with highly enriched uranium particles of vacuum equipment that was stored at a technical university.

Associated Press

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