Iran Reopens Uranium Conversion Site

Iran reopens its uranium-conversion site in Isfahan, to the concern of many in the international community. The International Atomic Energy Agency has called an emergency meeting. Melissa Block talks with David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Iran today resumed uranium conversion work at its nuclear facility in Isfahan, and reaction from the West was quick. The French called the move `alarming.' Britain is deeply concerned. An emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency has been called for tomorrow in Vienna to work out a response. Iran claims its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The US says Iran's goal is to create nuclear weapons. For more on this story, we're joined by David Albright. He's president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former nuclear weapons inspector.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (President Institute for Science and International Security): Sure. Glad to do it.

BLOCK: Mr. Albright, how significant a move is this that Iran has restarted its nuclear fuel cycle?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, it's very disturbing, and Iran had promised not to do it. And the basis of the negotiations with the Europeans was Iran would not do it, and, therefore, unfortunately, what Iran's actions mean is that the Europeans probably will have to discontinue their negotiations with Iran to find a solution to this, the problem of Iran's nuclear program.

BLOCK: There had been an EU proposal for Iran to curtail its program in exchange for economic incentives. That seems to have fallen apart. Iran said, `Not interested.'

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, it's unfortunate because I don't think the Iranians have given the European agreement a fair reading. Their reaction was so quick and so negative that it was surprising, and it adds to the crisis because you have to conclude that perhaps Iran never took these negotiations seriously.

BLOCK: Now this first step that they undertook today, what does it mean? What have they done exactly?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, what they did is they started the first part of the restart operations of the uranium conversion facility. They took some natural uranium. It's in a form called yellowcake. It's kind of a yellow powder. And they introduced it into the plant, so it's the very first start of the process. And that process goes through a series of chemical steps to making what's called uranium tetrafluoride and then finally making uranium hexafluoride, which is the material that you put into the gas centrifuges if you're going to enrich uranium.

BLOCK: Now other parts of this plant, though, are under IAEA seal. Isn't that right?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: That's correct. And so they took off the seals in the first part today, and they intend to take off the seals in the next part, as the need arises.

BLOCK: We mentioned this emergency meeting scheduled for tomorrow by the IAEA in Vienna. What do you expect to come of that? Could they do anything in the short term that would put a stop to this?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, one thing that this meeting will probably do is consider sending the issue of Iran and its past violation of the non-proliferation treaty to the Security Council. But if Iran is unwilling to continue its suspension at Isfahan, if it just thumbs its nose at the European deal, then the Europeans have no choice but to join with the United States and try to move this issue to the Security Council to impress upon Iran that it's a serious issue and that fuel cycle activities in the Middle East, particularly in Iran, which has cheated in the past, are just too dangerous.

BLOCK: And if it does go to the Security Council, that could mean sanctions against Iran, I suppose.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: It's possible. I mean, the first steps would be more political in nature, but at a level where it's viewed as a more serious issue where the consequences of not doing it could be more sever for Iran. And in the longer term, those could be sanctions.

BLOCK: And is there an appetite within the Security Council to take this on?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: We don't know. No one wants to have this go to the Security Council. I think even the United States, even though it supports it, would prefer if this could be settled between the Europeans and Iran.

BLOCK: If the goal of the Iranians is, in fact, to develop nuclear weapons, how far away would you estimate they are in that process?

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, it's very hard to know. I think most people believe that they're several years from being able to make enough of this highly enriched uranium that would be the basic material for a nuclear weapon. But uncertainty surrounds that estimate. And we also don't know if--what happens if Iran decides that it wants to launch a Manhattan-style project to get nuclear weapons. Could it speed up its effort by several years?

BLOCK: David Albright, thanks very much.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Albright is president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former nuclear weapons inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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