Iran stopped UN inspectors from visiting an underground bunker where it is building an industrial-scale plant to make enriched uranium but the inspectors will try again, diplomats told AFP Monday.
Iran had however promised "frequent inspector access" to the site in Natanz, the UN watchdog
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in February.
The highly sensitive inspections, and talks over how they are to take place, came as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to plead Iran's case this week before the UN Security Council, which is considering tightening sanctions on the Islamic republic over fears that it seeks nuclear weapons.
A centre of concern is the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, in central Iran, where the Iranians are already operating above-ground a pilot plant carrying out research levels of enrichment, the process which makes what can be fuel for civilian nuclear reactors but also the explosive core of atom bombs.
A diplomat said Iran had last Saturday refused to let IAEA inspectors into the underground hall at Natanz where the Iranians have set up hundreds of centrifuges in what is to be a 3,000-centrifuge facility for enriching uranium.
Centrifuges are the machines used to refine uranium for the U-235 isotope that is valuable for fuel or weapons.
Such a facility could make enough highly enriched uranium for an atom bomb in about 10 months, according to the IISS think-tank in London.
Other diplomats, all requesting anonymity due to the extreme delicacy of the issue, said IAEA inspectors are set to return this week, possibly Tuesday, to the plant and that delays in inspections were normal and could just be a matter of schedule changes or working out legal issues.
Iran's blocking access definitively to Natanz would be a violation of its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Iranian officials were not immediately reachable for comment.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei had reported on February 22 that the agency wanted to put cameras in the centrifuge hall in accordance with "safeguards measures that needed to be implemented . . . prior to the introduction of nuclear material into the facility."
The report said that Iran was spinning centrifuges empty, without uranium feedstock gas, in two 164-centrifuge production lines, and was finishing installing two other similar cascades, also totaling 328 centrifuges.
ElBaradei said the IAEA had "agreed to interim verification arrangements" at Natanz's underground site "involving frequent inspector access but not remote monitoring."
"Iran was informed that these arrangements (which are now in place) would be valid only for as long as the number of machines installed ... did not exceed 500, and that, once that number was exceeded, all required safeguards measures would need to be implemented," ElBaradei said.
A diplomat said the IAEA was already considering what to do if Iran did not comply.
Iran has however challenged the agency "to provide a detailed legal basis" for putting in cameras, as it contests the legality of the 500-centrifuge limit, according to the report.
The first diplomat said Iran did not want the IAEA to see "that it now has more than 500 centrifuges functioning underground" and that was the reason for the delay.
Tehran is defying the UN's calls for it to suspend uranium enrichment. Iran insists its nuclear programme is a peaceful effort to generate electricity.
Iran warned Monday that it would make a "proportionate" response to any new UN sanctions.
Diplomats in Vienna speculated that cutting off access to Natanz might be part of this response.
The Security Council is to meet Wednesday to review a draft resolution against Iran agreed last week by the body's five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany.
New sanctions would include barring Iran from exporting arms and buying weapons such as missiles.
1. End of Fund Dispute Clears Way for North Korean Nuclear Talks
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Negotiators from North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States are expected to advance discussions on dismantling North Koreaï¿½s nuclear program now that certain North Korean assets held in Macauï¿½s Banco Delta Asia (BDA) have been unfrozen.
ï¿½Weï¿½re going to try to have everyone go away from this in a couple of days with a pretty clear understanding of what that second phase is going to be,ï¿½ Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill said March 19, after the first day of the new round of the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
Earlier, Treasury Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes Daniel Glaser announced in Beijing that the United States and North Korea had reached an understanding on the disposition of some $25 million of North Korea-related assets frozen in BDA. Macau authorities had frozen the assets during investigations into the bankï¿½s illicit activities on behalf of North Korea.
The North Korean government has demanded the funds be freed before it rejoins the Six-Party Talks. ï¿½I think they [the North Koreans] recognize that this indeed means the matter is resolved,ï¿½ Hill said.
On March 14, the U.S. Treasury Department ruled that BDA ï¿½allowed its North Korean clients to use the bank to facilitate illicit conduct and engage in deceptive financial practices.ï¿½ The Treasury banned U.S. financial institutions from opening and maintaining correspondent accounts for or on behalf of BDA. This ruling remains in force.
But the North Koreans proposed that the questionable funds be moved to an account held at the Bank of China and used ï¿½solely for the betterment of the North Korean people, including for humanitarian and educational purposes,ï¿½ according to Glaserï¿½s announcement.
ï¿½Itï¿½s a proposal that takes into account our concerns. ï¿½ We feel this is the basis of the solution,ï¿½ Hill said.
Glaser said the Macanese authorities will release the funds according to their own procedures, but ï¿½we want it to happen as soon as possible,ï¿½ he added.
On February 13, the parties in the Six-Party process reached an agreement under which the United States promised to finalize its ruling on BDA and help resolve the issue of the funds within 30 days, and North Korea pledged to shut down the nuclear facility in Yongbyon within 60 days.
ï¿½We met our 30-day requirement by announcing the rule. We then followed that up with intense consultations,ï¿½ Hill said, adding that North Korea should now proceed with the shutdown. In return, it should expect the first shipment of oil from South Korea. The second phase would involve complete disablement of the North Korean nuclear program and further energy and economic assistance from the Six-Party group, Hill said.
Hill also indicated that at the end of the 60-day period there should be a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Six-Party group to ï¿½get together to chart the course ahead.ï¿½
Russia has informed Iran that it will withhold nuclear fuel for Iranï¿½s nearly completed Bushehr power plant unless Iran suspends its uranium enrichment as demanded by the United Nations Security Council, European, American and Iranian officials said.
The ultimatum was delivered in Moscow last week by Igor Ivanov, Russiaï¿½s Security Council Secretary, to Ali Hosseini Tash, Iranï¿½s deputy chief nuclear negotiator, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a confidential diplomatic exchange between two governments was involved.
For years, President Bush has been pressing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to cut off help to Iran on the nuclear reactor, which is Tehranï¿½s first serious effort to produce nuclear energy and has been highly profitable for Russia. But Mr. Putin has resisted.
Recently, however, Moscow and Tehran have been engaged in a public argument about whether Iran has paid its bills, in a dispute that may explain Russiaï¿½s apparent shift. The ultimatum may also reflect Moscowï¿½s increasing displeasure and frustration with Iran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium at its vast facility at Natanz.
ï¿½Weï¿½re not sure what mix of commercial and political motives are at play here,ï¿½ one senior Bush administration official said in Washington. ï¿½But clearly the Russians and the Iranians are getting on each otherï¿½s nerves ï¿½ and thatï¿½s not all bad.ï¿½
ï¿½We consider this a very important decision by the Russians,ï¿½ a senior European official said. ï¿½It shows that our disagreements with the Russians about the dangers of Iranï¿½s nuclear program are tactical. Fundamentally, the Russians donï¿½t want a nuclear Iran.ï¿½
At a time of growing tensions between Washington and Moscow, American officials are welcoming Russian aid on Iran as a sign that there are still areas in which the two powers can cooperate.
Russia has been deeply reluctant to ratchet up sanctions against Iran in the Security Council, which is expected to vote on a new set of sanctions against the country within the next week.
But American officials have also been trying to create a commercial incentive for Russia to put pressure on Iran. One proposal the Bush administration has endorsed since late 2005 envisions having the Russians enrich Iranï¿½s uranium in Russia. That creates the prospect of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in business for Russia and a way to ensure that Iran receives only uranium enriched for use in power reactors, instead of weapons.
Iran has rejected those proposals, saying it has the right to enrich uranium on its own territory.
The Russian Atomic Energy Agency, known as Rosatom, is eager to become a major player in the global nuclear energy market. As Security Council action against Iran has gained momentum and its isolation increases, involvement with Iranï¿½s Bushehr project may detract from Rosatomï¿½s reputation.
In a flurry of public comments in the past month, Russian officials have acknowledged that Russia is delaying the delivery of fuel to the reactor in the port city of Bushehr. The officials attributed the delay to the failure of Iran to pay what it owes, not on nuclear proliferation concerns.
But last month, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov informed some European officials that Russia had made a political decision not to deliver the fuel, adding that Russia would state publicly that the sole reason was financial, European officials said.
Members of the Security Council are moving towards a vote this week on a draft resolution imposing further sanctions on Iran for its defiance of demands that it suspend its enrichment activities and return to negotiations over its nuclear program.
The resolution is aimed at the countryï¿½s arms exports, a leading Iranian bank and the elite Revolutionary Guards military force. It would reduce Iranï¿½s access to foreign currency and isolate the bank, Bank Sepah, from international financing.
The State Department has granted visas to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a retinue of 38 aides and security staff so that he can address the Security Council meeting.
Throughout the negotiations, the Russians tried to water down the resolution, a reflection of both their desire to avoid a backlash in Iran and their strong skepticism about the effectiveness of sanctions.
The pending resolution follows on a similar one passed last December that required four months of negotiations, in large part because of Russiaï¿½s resistance. Russiaï¿½s support came only after an initial proposal to have imposed curbs on Bushehr was dropped.
Russian officials have gone out of their way not to publicly link the Bushehr project and the crisis over Iranï¿½s decision to forge ahead with producing more enriched uranium, which, depending on the level of enrichment, can be used to produce electricity or make weapons.
In remarks on Sunday, for example, Mr. Ivanov said there should be no linkage between discussions on Iranï¿½s nuclear program and the Bushehr plant. ï¿½It is a separate issue,ï¿½ he told a conference of Russiaï¿½s Foreign and Defense Policies Council. ï¿½All the work being done is under strict control of the International Atomic Energy Agency,ï¿½ the United Nationsï¿½ nuclear watchdog agency based in Vienna.
He also cautioned against using possible nuclear sanctions for other purposes, saying, ï¿½We oppose attempts to use this issue as an instrument of pressure or interference in Iranï¿½s internal affairs.ï¿½
But Mr. Ivanov also called on Iran to resolve outstanding questions with the agency about its nuclear program and to stop enriching uranium. The Russians have been pressing Iran to take some sort of pause in its uranium enrichment that might allow the Security Council process to halt and bring Iran back to negotiations.
ï¿½The clock must be stopped: Iran must freeze uranium enrichment,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½The U.N. Security Council will then take a break, too, and the parties would gather at the negotiating table.ï¿½
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, has also called for a ï¿½pause,ï¿½ noting that even a brief suspension of enrichment would be enough to get the United States to come to the negotiating table with Iran under an offer that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made in May.
The Bushehr nuclear project has a long history. For more than a decade, Russia has been working under a $1 billion contract to complete the ambitious project, which was begun with Germany during the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the project was halted; then the site was bombed by Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran. When Iran decided to complete the facility after the war ended, Germany, under pressure from the United States, refused to finish the project or even provide Moscow with the original blueprints.
The project ï¿½ already eight years behind schedule ï¿½ is now almost complete. Last year, Russia agreed to ship low-enriched fuel to the plant in southern Iran by March 2007 and open the facility in September, with electricity generation to start by November.
But in mid-February, Russia contended that Iran had not made the two last $25 million monthly payments, after insisting that it be allowed to pay in euros instead of dollars. Russian officials also cited a delay in the delivery of safety equipment from an unspecified third country as a secondary reason for the decision.
Iranian officials denied that payments had been delayed. ï¿½Iran has had no delay whatsoever in making payments for the Bushehr nuclear power plant,ï¿½ Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was quoted by Iranï¿½s state-run news agency IRNA as saying after the Russian decision.
A senior Iranian official confirmed in an interview last week that Mr. Ivanov had threatened Iran with an ultimatum that the fuel will be delivered only after Iranï¿½s enrichment of uranium at Natanz are frozen.
ï¿½We would be crazy at this late date to endanger the project by not paying,ï¿½ the official said. ï¿½There is no financial problem. The Russians want to use this issue as a bargaining chip.ï¿½
Amid strong reservation in New Delhi over the issue of reprocessing of spent fuel, US Energy Secretary Samuel W Bodman arrived in Delhi on Tuesday on a three-day visit for discussions with the Indian leaders on taking the Indo-US nuclear deal forward.
Just ahead of the bilateral talks on the 123 Agreement later this week, Bodman made a strong case for pushing forward the deal to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and increase the use of alternative sources to achieve energy security.
The crucial talks between the Indian and American experts on the 123 Agreement are likely to pave way for operationalising the nuke deal.
Seeking to allay any apprehensions by India that the deal may be inimical to its interests, the US Energy Secretary said the deal should not be viewed as a "threat in any way to New Delhi's sovereignty or its nuclear programme."
Rather, the opposite is true, Bodman said. "It is a major opportunity, and it is clear that the rest of the world will also benefit from India's active engagement in advancing new nuclear technology and on international non-proliferation efforts," he added.
On Sunday, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Anil Kakodkar had taken a tough stand on the spent fuel issue, saying India is committed to retaining the right to reprocess the spent fuel and that "this is non-negotiable".
"We want reprocessing rights upfront. Reprocessing is a non-negotiable right," he said ahead of nuclear talks. New Delhi "wants all these issues to be explicitly addressed," Kakodkar, who was one of the main architects of the deal, said.
Bodman didn't raise the issue of reprocessing. But he did underline that "the pact is good for India, good for the United States and good for our mutual energy security."
Stating that "India and the United States need each other", the official went on to elucidate the benefits of such an engagement.
"India is a world-class designer, developer and builder of new nuclear technology. The talent and creativity of your scientific community is unsurpassed. India's achievements are truly remarkable given that it has pursued these advances independent of the larger international community.
"Therefore, it is clear that the United States has much to learn and much to gain from greater cooperation with India," Bodman pointed out.
"At the same time, the US is home to the world's most powerful economy, and home to some of the world's most advanced industries. We too have made great advances in technology, safety and security that can greatly benefit India in this arena," he stated.
1. Bush Urged to Develop Overall Nuclear Arms Policy
Walter Pincus, Washington Post
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A prestigious scientific committee made up of retired nuclear weapons lab directors and former Defense and Energy department officials is recommending that, before the United States moves ahead on the development of new nuclear warheads, the Bush administration should develop a bipartisan policy regarding the size of the future stockpile, testing and nonproliferation.
The committee's report, which is due out next month, comes at a time when the Bush administration is asking Congress to approve $88 million for cost and engineering plans that could lead to a decision next year for production of a new Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) for the nation's current submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile.
The panel will recommend that "any decision to proceed with RRW must be coupled with a transparent administration policy on nuclear weapons, including comments concerning stockpile size, nuclear testing and nonproliferation," according to an interim progress report from the committee chaired by C. Bruce Tarter, the former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The panel was formed under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The panel includes John S. Foster Jr., another former Livermore director; Siegfried S. Hecker, who ran Los Alamos National Laboratory; Richard L. Wagner Jr., a Los Alamos veteran and a member of the Defense Science Board; and Charles B. Curtis, former deputy secretary of energy and currently president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
In presenting the interim report to an AAAS meeting last month, Tarter said the panel found there has been no Bush administration statements dealing with nuclear weapons since the Nuclear Posture Review in December 2001. In addition, he said, "There have been no public policy statements that articulate the role of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War and post-9/11 world and lay out the stockpile needs for the future."
Based on open and classified briefings from current officials at the Pentagon, the weapons labs and National Nuclear Security Administration, the panel believes that the RRW program should not move ahead without getting bipartisan agreement on the Complex 2030 plan, the costly modernization of the nation's nuclear weapons complex, and the future of the program now underway to refurbish the currently deployed nuclear weapons stockpile.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has in the past sought funds to carry out the comprehensive nuclear policy study that the AAAS panel has recommended. "We have pieces and programs, calls for designs and weapons that don't track back to a policy that everyone understands," she said in a recent interview.
"There are a growing number of voices that have credibility that are saying we have a disjointed set of programs that don't lead to a cogent nuclear policy for the 21st century," she said, pointing to an article last January by Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, former secretaries of State; former defense secretary William J. Perry and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).
In it they called on the Bush administration to take the lead in reversing reliance on nuclear weapons through various measures, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; taking nuclear weapons off alert; further reducing the number of the weapons themselves; and halting production of fissile materials.
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