TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran said it will provide the U.N. nuclear watchdog with the bare minimum of information about its plan to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants, a stance sure to stoke Western suspicions about its atomic agenda.
In a defiant response to last week’s International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors vote rebuking Iran for building a second enrichment plant in secret, Tehran said on Sunday it would build 10 more sites like its IAEA-monitored one at Natanz.
In 2007, in reprisal for U.N. sanctions slapped on it, Iran renounced an amended IAEA code of conduct requiring states to notify the agency of nuclear plans as soon as they are drafted, so as to catch any illicit atomic bomb work in the early stages.
Iran reverted to an earlier IAEA transparency code mandating only 180 days notice before a nuclear site begins production.
A senior Iranian official quoted by official news agency IRNA made clear Iran would apply the minimum transparency rule to its plan for 10 more enrichment plants.
Analysts say Iran will need many years if not decades for such a huge expansion of enrichment, but fear Iran’s adherence to obsolete notification rules will heighten the risk of Tehran trying to “weaponize” enrichment clandestinely.
Uranium enrichment can be calibrated to yield fuel either for nuclear power plants or the fissile core of a nuclear bomb.
A senior Iranian diplomat involved in now stalled nuclear talks with the West said Iran would continue cooperation with the IAEA only according to its 1970s basic safeguards agreement.
“According to the safeguards, after installation of equipment (centrifuges) and only 180 days ahead of injecting gas into the centrifuges ... we should inform the IAEA,” Abolfazl Zohrehvand told IRNA. “And we will act within the framework of the safeguard,” the former Iranian ambassador to Italy said.
“Since 2007, Iran officially has stopped implementation of amendments to code 3.1, obliging countries to inform the IAEA when they plan to build a facility,” added Zohrehvand.
The IAEA has told Iran it was “outside the law” by failing to declare the second enrichment site taking shape inside a mountain bunker near Qom as soon as plans for it were drawn up.
Iran said construction there began in 2007 and the project was hushed up for fear of air strikes by Israel. Iran declared the plant to the IAEA in September after, according to Western powers, learning that their spy services had discovered it.
Western diplomats said they had intelligence evidence that the enrichment project was hatched before 2007, and that Iran probably would have used the site to enrich uranium to weapons-grade if it had not been exposed.
Iran says its enriched uranium will be only for electricity generation. Iran’s record of nuclear secrecy and lack of power plants to use low-enriched uranium has convinced the West that Iran is hiding a program to develop nuclear weapons capacity.
Last week’s IAEA resolution also urged Iran to halt all enrichment-related activity, allow unfettered IAEA inspections, guarantee it is not hiding more sites, and cooperate with an IAEA probe into allegations of nuclear weapons research by Iran.
The United States and Germany warned Iran on Thursday that it was rapidly approaching a December deadline to accept an IAEA-brokered nuclear cooperation deal with world powers.
Iran has backed off from the deal calling on it to send 75 percent of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France to be turned into fuel for a Tehran medical research reactor.
The West hoped that farming out a large amount of Iran’s LEU reserve for reprocessing would minimize the risk of Iran’s refining the material to high purity suitable for bombs.
But hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday Iran would enrich its LEU stockpile to 20 percent purity needed for the medical isotope reactor, a step the West fears would usher Iran closer to the 80-90 percent grade for an atom bomb.
In talks with six world powers in Geneva on October 1, Iran agreed in principle to the deal but has since balked. Iran has until the end of the year to agree to it or face the threat of tougher sanctions, U.S. officials say.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to engage Iran with confidence-building measures have so far been fruitless. Ahmadinejad ruled out further talks with six major powers on the future of Iran’s enrichment campaign.
Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Samia Nakhoul