Iran defiant on nuclear programme

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Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear programme and reducing access to inspectors, ignoring repeated demands by the United Nations, the UN nuclear watchdog reported on Wednesday.

The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency signals Iran’s failure to meet the latest in a series of deadlines set by the UN Security Council for Iran to suspend the process of uranium enrichment, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material.

“Iran’s leaders are continuing down a path that puts them increasingly at odds with the international community,” said Greg Schulte, US ambassador to the IAEA.

However, the report shows that while Iran’s programme has made rapid progress during the year so far, the pace may have slackened over the past month.

Tehran’s current objective is to use 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium. In theory, 3,000 centrifuges could produce enough nuclear material for a bomb within a year – although the likelihood of breakdowns means it would take significantly longer in practice. Iran insists its purposes are peaceful.

Wednesday’s report confirms Iran has put 260kg of the nuclear feedstock uranium hexafluoride into a system of over 1,300 centrifuges.

At the time of the last IAEA report, in February, Iran had not yet begun to use any centrifuges to enrich uranium at its main site in Natanz, although it had already installed and tested some 320 centrifuges there. In addition to the 1,300 centrifuges now operating, two “cascades” of a further 164 centrifuges apiece have now been tested and three cascades more were recently placed under construction.

Iran has also declared that it has enriched uranium to a level of 4.8 per cent – enough to serve as nuclear fuel, but far short of the levels of about 90 per cent needed for atomic weapons.

However, an IAEA letter dated April 18 reveals that over a month ago Iran was already using 1,300 centrifuges to enrich uranium – the same figure as in yesterday’s report.

The pace of Iran’s progress is an intensely political issue since Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director general, has recently argued that the Iranian programme is so far advanced that the Security Council’s call for total suspension of uranium enrichment is now “superseded by events”.

This week, the US, Britain and France chided Mr ElBaradei for his comments, though Germany, which often takes a more conciliatory approach towards Iran’s programme, has not associated itself with the step.

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