iran resumes uranium enrichment program

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    TEHRAN, Iran — Iran resumed uranium conversion activities at its Isfahan nuclear facility today, a step that Europeans and the United States have warned would prompt them to seek U.N. sanctions against the Tehran regime.

    Work restarted at the conversion facility in central Iran quickly after inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog finished installing surveillance equipment.

    The move came a day before the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board of governors is to hold an emergency session to discuss Iran's nuclear program that was expected to produce a sharply worded warning to Iran. The agency could then refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose economic sanctions.

    European negotiators and the United States have said they would likely recommend that the IAEA act against Iran if work at Isfahan resumed.

    The IAEA, meanwhile, said work had resumed at Isfahan before the surveillance equipment had been tested to ensure it was operating properly.

    Iran had suspended work at the plant and its other nuclear facilities in November to avoid sanctions and as a gesture in negotiations with France, Germany and Britain, which are acting on behalf of the 25-nation European Union.

    The Europeans have been trying to persuade Iran to sharply limit its nuclear operations, which has raised concerns in the West since it was revealed that some parts of the program had been hidden from IAEA inspectors for years. But Iran on Saturday rejected an EU proposal for it to curtail the program in return for economic incentives.

    The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran insists its program aims only to produce electricity and says it has the right to develop the entire nuclear fuel cycle — from raw uranium to the fuel for a reactor. Europe fears that if Iran develops fuel on its own, it will also secretly produce material for bombs.

    The conversion facility, 10 miles southeast of the city of Isfahan, carried out an early stage of the fuel cycle, turning raw uranium, known as yellowcake, into UF-6 gas, the feedstock for enrichment.

    The official Islamic Republic News Agency announced that the yellowcake was "taken into a special room for injection, sampling and other reprocessing activities." It said the plant will soon start turning yellowcake into UF-4, a preliminary stage before UF-6.

    Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told state-run television that Iran was restarting work in Isfahan in gradual steps.

    "We are restarting work in Isfahan stage by stage as technical work requires to do so. Today, we restarted work for production of AUC (Ammonium uranyl carbonate)," he said.

    The AUC unit had not been sealed by the IAEA. Within the next two days, inspectors from the agency will remove seals that were put in place on the unit where UF-4 is turned into UF-6, bringing the facility up to full speed, Saeedi said.

    In the next stage of the process, which Iran has said it will not resume for the time being, the gas is fed into centrifuges for enrichment. Uranium enriched to a low level is used for reactor fuel but further enrichment makes it suitable for atomic bombs.

    But the IAEA said activity at the plant resumed before the installation equipment was ready.

    "The activity was commenced following the installation today, by the agency, of cameras covering the input stage of the uranium ore concentrate process line, but regrettably prior to the completion of the ... testing of the cameras," said Mark Gwozdecky, spokesman for IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei. He added the testing process usually takes 24 hours.

    An exiled opposition group urged the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA to refer Iran to the Security Council, accusing Tehran of exploiting talks with the Europeans in a "cat and mouse game" to stall for time while covertly developing a nuclear weapons program.

    The National Council of Resistance of Iran claimed to have obtained a classified document in which Iranian officials purportedly gloat over their ability to pursue that work while the United States is preoccupied with the war in Iraq.

    Farid Soleimani, a senior official with the Paris-based opposition group, told reporters in Vienna that the document was issued in June by Iran's Supreme National Security Council. He said it described the two years of negotiations with the EU as a "major achievement" for Iran's nuclear program because the talks took the pressure off the regime.

    "We thwarted U.S. efforts to accuse Iran of noncompliance" with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which forbids Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, Soleimani quoted the report as saying.

    Before the suspension of work at Isfahan, Iran converted some 37 tons of yellowcake into UF-4. Experts say that amount of yellowcake could yield over 200 pounds of weapons-grade uranium if fully enriched, enough to make five crude nuclear weapons.

    The uranium conversion facility in Isfahan and the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, also in central Iran, house the heart of Iran's nuclear program.

    Saeedi said Iran is willing to wait on starting uranium enrichment — injecting gas into centrifuges — until a deal is reached with Europe.

    "We won't restart work in Natanz for now. We hope we will reach a logical conclusion in talks with Europeans," he said.

    Iran says suspension of all its nuclear activities has harmed its technological advancement and left hundreds of scientists without work.

    Iran's nuclear program also has turned into a matter of national pride for both reformers and hard-liners within Iran's ruling Islamic establishment.
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