U.N. Cites Iran On Nuclear Inspectors

The U.N.'s atomic energy agency has complained that its efforts to monitor Iran's nuclear developments were being compromised by Tehran's objections to giving some agency inspectors access to its program. It comes after Iran's decision to ban two experienced agency inspectors from monitoring Tehran's nuclear activities after the two unearthed undeclared nuclear experiments.

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The IAEA has issued another of its periodic reports about Iran's nuclear activities. The picture that emerges is troubling. According to the report, Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of U.N. Security Council demands, and it points to several areas where Iran has made it more difficult for inspectors to keep track of what's going on.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: For years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has sent inspectors regularly into Iran, and used cameras and video equipment installed at its known nuclear sites to track Iran's nuclear activities, including the amount of low enriched uranium it has produced.

But now, the IAEA has issued a warning that Iran is making that basic task more and more difficult, says David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Dr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (Institute for Science and International Security): The most striking thing in the report is how Iran is not cooperating with the IAEA on what we would call the traditional safeguards. Iran's been criticized for years for not accepting the advanced safeguards that the IAEA requires. But now you have Iran systematically not cooperating with the IAEA on traditional safeguards at declared nuclear sites.

SHUSTER: Specifically, the agency's report singles out Iran's recent banning of two inspectors from its nuclear facilities. In addition, the report discloses, Iranians have broken some of the seals installed by the agency that help it monitor the amount of enriched uranium or its precursors that have been produced in Iran.

Iran says it has the right to ban inspectors because they leaked key information about Iran's nuclear activities, a charge the agency denies. As for the broken seals, Iran says this was entirely accidental, an explanation that Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute's Center for Non-Proliferation Studies does not find credible.

Mr. LEONARD SPECTOR (Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute): What we're seeing is an erosion of the quality of IAEA inspections by virtue of a slow activity by the Iranians to try to hold back information, to create ambiguities. And it creates, you know, more uncertainty about the direction of events.

SHUSTER: Still, the report does not conclude Iran has diverted nuclear materials into military activities. And it's clear from the report that Iran is still using fairly primitive equipment to enrich uranium, and that some 5000 gas centrifuges installed at Natanz for this purpose have not been running for most of the past year.

The agency's report does express concern about the possible existence of past or current nuclear activities in the military field, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. There are indications, the report alleges, that certain of these activities may have continued beyond 2004.

Just what the international community can do about all this is not clear, but Leonard Spector believes that recent economic sanctions adopted by the U.N., the U.S., the European Union and other key nations are building pressure on Iran.

Mr. SPECTOR: And I think they're starting to bite. The Japanese development, where a number of Japanese banks will no longer do business with Iran, was an important one. We'll see it again, I think, shortly, in South Korea. So I think we are in the middle of things. We haven't quite seen the full impact, and therefore it's not unreasonable that we're not seeing Iran blink at this moment. But that may lie ahead.

SHUSTER: That may be what Iran's leaders are thinking, as well. David Albright says they are laying the foundation now for more intense secret work later on.

Dr. ALBRIGHT: Right now, the worry isn't so much that Iran would actually divert, but that what it's doing is kind of, in a sense, degrading the inspections. And yet if they're really pressed, they may fix a problem. But overall, they're trying to degrade inspections. So a few years from now, when their centrifuge program is bigger, working better, if they want to divert, they'll have some confidence that the diversion won't be detected for some longer period of time than what the IAEA says.

SHUSTER: Today, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization pointed out that other inspectors have been permitted to replace those that were banned, and he urged the IAEA to steer a fair and neutral course with regard to Iran.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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