Wed, Feb 21, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Iran nears industrial enrichment: IAEA

CURRENT CONCERN Mohamed ElBaradei told a British paper that Tehran is years away from developing a nuclear weapon, but closer to producing lots of centrifuges


Iran may be as little as six months from being able to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog said.

In an interview with Britain's Financial Times to be published yesterday, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said intelligence estimates put Iran at least five years from being able to develop nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei is due to issue a report today on Iran's compliance with a UN Security Council demand that it halt nuclear fuel work such as uranium enrichment, which could be used to make fissile bomb-grade material.

Iran, which says it has no plans to make atomic weapons, has installed scores of enrichment centrifuges at a pilot facility in a plant near the central city of Natanz.

ElBaradei told the Financial Times that while concern Iran may acquire the know-how to enrich uranium -- a process that can produce nuclear reactor or bomb-grade fuel -- may have "been relevant six months ago, it is not relevant today because Iran has been running these centrifuges for at least six months."

He said Iran could go on to install an industrial scale capacity of 3,000 centrifuges within months.

"It could be six months, it could be a year," he said, stressing that the best way to deal with the issue was negotiations.

"The ideal situation is to make sure that there is no industrial capacity, that there is full inspection [of Iran's nuclear facilities]," ElBaradei said.

Meanwhile, Russia said on Monday that it would slow work on Iran's nearly completed Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Russia contended that Iran had not yet made the last two payments, in a dispute about whether it could pay in euros instead of dollars.

The move added a new twist to the deeply contentious project to build a Russian-designed, water-cooled reactor in Iran, a decade-old deal that is a factor in the US' concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The dispute that became public on Monday will delay, perhaps by a year, any delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran, Russian officials and experts said. Low-enriched uranium fuel was scheduled to be shipped next month.

"The accounts are not being paid," said Ivan Dybov, spokesman for Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency.

What is at issue, he said, was a request last month from an Iranian bank to settle accounts in euros rather than dollars.

Tehran has a stated policy of settling contracts and holding reserves in currencies other than the dollar.

As part of its effort to halt Iran's nuclear program, the US has encouraged European banks to freeze Iranian dollar-denominated accounts.

An Iranian official denied that the country had been late in making payments.

"We have made all the payments so far based on the contract and the agreed installments," said Muhammad Saeedi, the deputy director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported.

"We will try to come up with a solution for the financial problem of the Russian contractor, which is their problem, not the problem of the Iranian side, in the next few days," he said.

A UN ultimatum to Iran to halt uranium enrichment expires today. But the commercial arm-twisting was also in keeping with the Kremlin's policy lately of pumping up the bottom line across a spectrum of state businesses, from oil and gas to nuclear power.

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