By Molly Moore Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, February 13, 2006; 4:15 PM
PARIS, Feb. 13 -- Iran reportedly has begun small-scale uranium enrichment, an initial step in the long process toward making civilian fuel or nuclear weapons, according to Western diplomats pushing for international action against Tehran.
The diplomats, who spoke Monday on the condition of anonymity, said their information was based on private statements by Iranian officials rather than actual evidence. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are scheduled to visit Iran's Natanz enrichment facility on Tuesday to assess Iran's research activities in the face of mounting political tensions between Tehran and the international community, diplomats said.
Some Vienna-based diplomats said reports that Iran had taken the first steps of placing uranium gas into centrifuges have not been substantiated because monitors have not yet inspected the enrichment site.
The IAEA board voted Feb. 4 to send a resolution to the United Nations Security Council expressing "serious concerns" about Iran's nuclear intentions, but delayed a debate on more definitive action until a March 6 meeting in hopes that Iran would back down from threats to restart its nuclear enrichment research.
In the week since that vote, Iranian officials have threatened to restart uranium enrichment research, but have not announced that the work has begun.
On Monday, Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham told reporters in Tehran that Iran "will not wait for the IAEA meeting on March 6 to resume enrichment."
He said Iran has postponed indefinitely talks with Russia that had been scheduled for Thursday to discuss the stalemate over international demands that Iran refrain from any uranium enrichment efforts. Russian officials have offered to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil, a compromise that would permit Iran access to enriched uranium but prevent it from becoming engaged in one of the most sensitive steps of the nuclear fuel production cycle.
On Saturday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned in a televised speech that Iran would consider withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if the international community attempts to stop what Iran maintains is a civilian nuclear energy program.
"The Islamic Republic has continued its program within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Non-Proliferation Treaty," Ahmadinejad said in a speech commemorating the 27th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. "But if we see that you want to use the NPT regulations to deprive us of our rights, know that the people will revise their policy in this regard."
The next day Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi appeared to back away from the president's threat saying at his weekly news conference, "We are committed to our commitments within the NPT," according to IRNA, Iran's official news agency.
He added, "But we cannot accept that the treaty is used as a political instrument."