Iran nuclear ramp-up plan is “brazen” defiance: U.S.

By Sylvia Westall and Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) – The United States said Iran’s plan to shift nuclear activity to an underground bunker showed its “brazen” and deepening defiance of international demands to curb work seen by the West as geared to producing atom bombs.

Iran’s envoy hit back at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Thursday, vowing the Islamic state would resist Western pressure over a nuclear program it says has exclusively peaceful aims.

Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh also launched a verbal attack on IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and accused him of bias, highlighting increasingly strained relations between Tehran and the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

The Japanese IAEA chief has taken a blunter approach to Iran than his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, saying in his first report on the country early last year that he feared it may be working to develop a nuclear-armed missile.

“He is not doing his job. Instead, with his reports, he is paving the way for more confrontation between member states,” Soltanieh told reporters.

The statements, during a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation governing board, came a day after Iran announced a plan to triple its production capacity of higher-grade uranium.

Iran also said on Wednesday it would transfer the production of the material to a mountain bunker later this year, a step that heightened Western alarm about its nuclear intentions.

Western powers are concerned about the higher-grade enrichment because it takes Iran a step closer to producing potential atomic bomb-grade fuel. Tehran denies such aims and says its nuclear program is for peaceful uses only.

Washington’s IAEA envoy Glyn Davies said the plan was Iran’s “most recent brazen example of its deepening non-compliance” of its international obligations.

MILITARY AIMS?

Iran only disclosed the existence of Fordow, a mountain bunker near the clerical city of Qom, in September 2009, after Western intelligence agencies had detected it. Up to now, Iran has enriched uranium only at its well-known Natanz complex.

The decision to shift and ramp up production drew immediate censure from the West, which has imposed a series of sanctions on Iran to try to force it to halt enrichment — a process that can make material for bombs if done to a much higher level.

Holing up in Fordow could provide greater protection for Iran’s sensitive, uranium-refining centrifuges in the face of any air strikes by the United States or Israel, which have not ruled out such action if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute.

Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons and says it is enriching uranium to the 3.5 percent level for electricity production and to 20 percent purity for medical applications.

But its decision last year to raise the level of enrichment beyond that needed for power plant fuel to 20 percent increased disquiet in the West because this would bring Iran significantly closer to the 90 percent threshold suitable for bomb fuel.

The great bulk of time and technical challenge involved in enrichment is just getting to the 3.5 percent level. Advancing to 20 percent and above is a considerably faster process.

The IAEA reiterated on Thursday that Iran had not notified the agency of its latest enrichment plan.

Amano has voiced growing concern about possible work military aspects of Iran’s nuclear work, urging Tehran to provide prompt access to sites and officials.

Iran has rebuffed such requests, dismissing Western allegations of military-related nuclear work as baseless. Soltanieh said his country would press on with enrichment.

“Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear warhead and new information about experiments on neutron generators that…have no other application than nuclear weapons development, should demand the undivided attention of the international community,” Davies said.