Daily Telegraph: Iran suspended sensitive nuclear work yesterday in the hope of averting a referral to the United
Nations Security Council for possible sanctions over fears
that it is seeking to develop a nuclear bomb.
Daily Telegraph

By Robin Gedye, Foreign Affairs Writer

Iran suspended sensitive nuclear work yesterday in the hope of averting a referral to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions over fears that it is seeking to develop a nuclear bomb.

"I think pretty much everything has come to a halt," said Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. "We are just going to apply seals [to the equipment"> and make sure everything has stopped."

The suspension, only three days before a deadline set by the agency, was instigated under pressure from Britain, France and Germany, whose diplomats have worked hard to avert a confrontation between Teheran and Washington, which believes that Iran has long-term plans to develop nuclear weapons.

Military action if Iran does not comply or is revealed to have secret programmes remains a key part of Bush administration hardliners' thinking.

Despite Teheran's assurance that it had ceased to enrich uranium, an essential process in becoming self-sufficient in nuclear energy, doubts remained about its true intentions.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, welcomed its announcement but said he hoped "very much that a way will be found for Iran to come fully into compliance with its obligations".

Uncertainty over Teheran's commitment to complying with the agency's nuclear safeguards in the long term derives from a number of factors, culminating in its insistence on waiting until yesterday to suspend sensitive nuclear work under an agreement signed a week ago. That left four agency inspectors only three days to check as many as 12 facilities, place seals on any equipment that could be used to develop nuclear weaponry and report back to a board meeting in Vienna.

"It should just about be possible," a diplomatic source said. "But it is clearly designed to make life as difficult as possible for us and to allow Teheran to put in as much work as it can on uranium enrichment so that, when the time comes for another showdown, it has that much more leverage."

Mr ElBaradei said that in the period leading up to the deadline Iran had processed about two tons of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride, the gas that is fed into centrifuges to produce low-enriched and weapons-grade uranium.

A nuclear expert said that that would be about a quarter of the quantity needed to produce the 50lb or so of weapons-grade uranium for one small nuclear weapon.

Teheran has made clear since last week's agreement with Britain, France and Germany that it regards the suspension as temporary and reserves the right to resume enrichment and related activities if there is no progress in continuing negotiations with the EU.

The EU has said it sees the suspension as open-ended and says it will help Teheran to develop a peaceful nuclear programme and allow it economic and political concessions.

But the internal pressures on Teheran are great. Few issues achieve the kind of political consensus that the nuclear debate creates - from reformers to hard-liners.