Sunday, July 10, 2005

Iran wants to break UN seals to test atomic parts

Iran has asked the U.N. nuclear watchdog to let it break U.N. seals and test atomic equipment that has been mothballed under an agreement with the EU's three biggest powers, a senior Iranian official said on Wednesday.

A U.S. official said it appeared Tehran wanted to violate its pledge to suspend all activities linked to the production of enriched-uranium fuel, a technology that can be used in either atomic power plants or weapons.

But the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Mohammad Saeedi, said the move had nothing to do with the suspension of nuclear activities it agreed with France, Britain and Germany, representing the European Union.

"Iran's request to temporarily remove seals at some parts of the Isfahan's (uranium conversion) facility is not related to the suspension," Saeedi told Reuters by telephone.

"We have asked the (International Atomic Energy Agency) to let us remove the seal at some parts of the facility in the presence of the visiting IAEA inspectors. We want to test equipment there to check whether those are functional. It does not mean lifting the suspension," he said.

The United States and the European Union fear Iran is using its nuclear energy programme as a front to develop nuclear weapons and have called on Iran to cease all sensitive atomic work. Tehran says its programme is peaceful and refuses to give up its sovereign right to a full atomic programme.

Diplomats from the three big EU countries have long said testing of machinery used in the nuclear fuel cycle should be frozen under the November suspension agreement signed in Paris.

A diplomat from one of the EU trio said it was unclear how they would react.

"The odds are that we will see this as a maintenance operation that does not amount to a significant breach of the Paris Agreement," the diplomat said.

U.S. WON'T TOLERATE SLIGHTEST BREACH

But Washington made it clear it would not tolerate even a small breach of the Paris Agreement.

"Any contravention of (the) Paris agreement would be a step backwards, not a step forward," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

A U.S. official, who asked not to be named because Washington had yet to fully evaluate what the Iranians wanted, said Tehran was apparently asking to break its agreement.

"It looks at first sight that what they're asking for would contravene the Paris Agreement," the official said.

McCormack underscored the U.S. position that Iran should not resume enrichment-related activities.

"We've made very clear ... that conversion and enrichment activities would not be allowed under the Paris Agreement and are specifically forbidden by it," he said.

The diplomat who first informed Reuters about the Iranian request said it was "aimed at testing Europe's degree of flexibility towards Iran, and the strength of the seam line between the EU3 and the IAEA."

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