Defying the world, Iran revealed today it has begun converting a second batch of uranium into gas, a step that brings it closer to producing the enriched uranium used in either nuclear reactors or bombs.
The European Union, with US support, has been calling on Iran to halt conversion since August, when Britain, France and Germany broke off negotiations with the country after it announced it had re-started converting uranium “yellowcake” into gas, a process necessary for actual enrichment.
Next Thursday, the UN nuclear watchdog is to consider whether to refer Iran to the Security Council for possible sanctions. Member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency are expected to review Iran’s conduct since September, when the body passed a resolution that called on the country to halt conversion and placed it one step from referral to the Security Council.
Concerns over Iran’s programme were likely to deepen after the IAEA reported today that Iran received designs from the black market network that show how to cast fissile material into a spherical form. Diplomats close to the agency said it could indicate a design for the core of a nuclear warhead.
Iranian officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The IAEA report said Iran told the agency it had not asked for the designs but was given then by a black market network that sold it other equipment.
Some 5,000 hard-line student supporters of the nuclear programme demonstrated today outside the plant Iran has built to carry out enrichment, denouncing international pressure on Iran and warning the government “not to trust” the West in negotiations.
The students, including supporters of the Baseej militia that enforces Islamic rules on the streets, joined hands in a chain outside the plant in the central town of Natanz.
The process of uranium conversion takes place at another facility, located outside the southern city of Isfahan.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was asked by state TV whether the country had started converting into gas a second batch of uranium, as it had planned to do at Isfahan.
“This job is done and the plant is continuing its activity,” Larijani said in an interview recorded late yesterday and broadcast today. He added Iran had informed the IAEA of the development.
Larijani also said Iran had refused IAEA inspectors access to a military site at Lavisan, on the northeastern outskirts of Tehran, during their visit in late October.
“To visit some places, the inspectors’ wish is not sufficient. They cannot force Iran to allow a visit to any place, particularly in military areas,” Larijani said.
Last month, Iran allowed IAEA inspectors to visit a military site at Parchin, southeast of Tehran. Larijani did not explain why Parchin could be visited but not Lavisan.
Critics of Iran’s nuclear programme, such as the United States, suspect the military has played a role in the country’s nuclear development as part of a covert plan to produce nuclear bombs. Iran denies such ambitions, saying its nuclear programme is strictly for the generation of electricity.
A report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that was prepared for next week’s meeting, says Iran has improved its co-operation with the world body, but there “remain issues to be resolved” concerning the Iranian military’s role in the nuclear programme and the country’s secret enrichment activities between 1995 and 2002.
The confidential report, which The Associated Press in Vienna saw today, said inspectors had been refused entry to Lavisan. It also said greater Iranian transparency was “indispensable and overdue” as the agency tried to determine whether the military had run a secret nuclear programme parallel to the civilian one.
Larijani reiterated in the TV interview that Iran was ready to resume negotiations with its three European counterparts.
“Iran’s position was positive, but Europe stopped the negotiations,” he said. Britain, France and Germany have insisted on Iran’s freezing conversion before negotiations resume.