U.N. inspectors fear Iran is hiding nuclear plants

WASHINGTON — International inspectors who gained access to Iran's newly revealed underground nuclear enrichment plant voiced strong suspicions in a report Monday that the country was concealing other atomic facilities.

The report was the first independent account of what was contained in the once-secret plant, tunneled into the side of a mountain, and came as the Obama administration was expressing growing impatience with Iran's slow response in nuclear negotiations.

In unusually tough language, the International Atomic Energy Agency appeared highly skeptical that Iran would have built the enrichment plant without also constructing a variety of other facilities that would give it an alternative way of producing nuclear fuel if its main centers were bombed.

So far, Iran has denied that it built other hidden sites in addition to the one deep underground on a military base about 12 miles north of the holy city of Qum. The inspectors were given access to the plant late last month and reported that they had found it in "an advanced state" of construction, but that no centrifuges — the fast-spinning machines needed to make nuclear fuel — had yet been installed.

The inspectors said Iran had "provided access to all areas of the facility" and planned to complete it by 2011. They also confirmed U.S. and European intelligence reports that the site had been built to house about 3,000 centrifuges, enough to produce enough material for one or two nuclear weapons a year. But that is too small to be useful in the production of fuel for civilian nuclear power, which is what Iran insists is the intended purpose of the site.

The report comes just two days after President Barack Obama, on a trip to Asia, said "we are running out of time" for Iran to sign onto a deal to ship part of its nuclear fuel out of the country. He said he would begin to plan for far more stringent economic sanctions against Tehran.

Russia, meanwhile, added a new note of discord to its relations with Iran on Monday, announcing that a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Iran would not come online at the end of the year as planned.

Russia's energy minister said that politics had played no role in delaying the startup of the plant, a focal point in a broader dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions. And although Iran's senior leadership offered no immediate response, hard-line members of its Parliament excoriated the delay, calling Russia "dishonest."

"If we wait another 200 years, the Russians will not complete the plant," said Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash, a member of Parliament, according to Iran's ISNA news agency. "It is naive to believe that the Russians are cooperating with us."

The startup of the plant, at Bushehr, in southern Iran, has been plagued by delays since Russia took over work on the facility in the mid 1990s, with Russian officials often appearing to use the project as leverage in negotiations with Iran's leaders.

Sergei Shmatko, the Russian energy minister, said "technical issues" were responsible for the latest postponement.

"We expect serious results by the end of the year, but the launch itself will not occur," Shmatko said at a news conference in Moscow, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. He vowed that the Bushehr plant would be completed, but said that the date would depend on security guarantees at the facility.

U.N. inspectors fear Iran is hiding nuclear plants 11/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 11:08pm]

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