Sunday Times: IRAN has warned British officials that it could produce enough enriched uranium in a year for a nuclear weapon — significantly raising the stakes in its stand-off with the West.
The claim was made during talks late last month between Iran and Britain, France and Germany but has only just come to light. Sunday Times

Nicholas Rufford

IRAN has warned British officials that it could produce enough enriched uranium in a year for a nuclear weapon — significantly raising the stakes in its stand-off with the West.

The claim was made during talks late last month between Iran and Britain, France and Germany but has only just come to light.

According to a high-ranking Washington diplomat, Tehran said that it was only months away from producing enough fissionable material for a bomb if it chose to, and only three years from making the device itself.

The revelation comes as the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, prepares to meet to consider a report that will increase concerns over the Islamic state’s intentions.

John Bolton, America’s undersecretary of state for arms control, said Iranian officials made their position clear during secret talks with their counterparts from the three European Union states in Paris on July 29.

“They’ve told the ‘EU Three’ that they could enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon within a year,” Bolton said.

The Iranian comments, he said, suggested that if they were put under pressure they could turn their peaceful nuclear programme into a military one. “The assertion gives the lie to the public contention that their nuclear programme is entirely civil and peaceful in purpose,” he said.

The Foreign Office has made no mention of the Iranian threat, apparently for fear of deepening the rift between Iran and the West and strengthening the hand of hardliners who want to end co-operation.

Contacted by The Sunday Times, the Foreign Office at first denied that Iran had made the claim at the meeting, but later said it could not comment on diplomatic discussions. Privately officials are furious that Washington has divulged the contents of briefing notes passed to it in confidence.

If couched in the terms suggested by Washington, the Iranian statement amounts to a dramatic esclalation in the nuclear row that has developed over the summer.

It would signify that Iran is prepared to pull out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which obliges it to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, and implies that Tehran is at least two years closer to having the capability to build a nuclear bomb than many experts thought.

Iran has accused the EU Three of reneging on a protocol signed last year under which it agreed to allow international inspectors into its nuclear sites and to co-operate with the IAEA. In return, Iran expected to receive nuclear technology and expertise under the “Atoms for Peace” programme.

Britain and other nuclear powers have so far refused to supply help because of suspicions over Iran’s intentions.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an opposition group, was the first to reveal the existence of two suspicious nuclear sites — a heavy water plant at Arak in central Iran and a partly buried site at Natanz capable of housing 50,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium. Farid Soleimani, a member of the foreign affairs council of the NCRI, said Iran had nuclear capability far in advance of what it had publicly admitted.

Iran already faces renewed criticism from the IAEA. In a report due to be completed on September 3, the agency describes the findings of its investigations into traces of weapons-grade uranium discovered by inspectors inside Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran claims an innocent explanation but the report, scheduled to be discussed by representatives of 35 countries on the IAEA’s board of governors at a meeting beginning on September 13, concludes that Iran still has questions to answer, according to information passed to The Sunday Times.

Nevertheless, the US government, which has taken an increasingly hawkish line against the Islamic republic, is likely to be disappointed that the IAEA has found insufficient evidence to warrant the intervention of the UN security council.

Iran has already warned that unless it is given a clean bill of health by the IAEA and gets the technical help to which it believes it is entitled, it will reduce its co-operation or end it altogether.

“We are at an impasse and there is no easy way out,” said Dr Wyn Bowen, a British expert in counter-proliferation.

At the Paris meeting, Iran made it clear that its patience with the diplomatic process had run out, surprising the European diplomats with a list of its own demands. These included access to “advanced technology, including those with dual use” equipment and know-how with both peaceful and weapons applications.

The Iranian delegation also demanded a commitment to push for a non-nuclear Middle East and to “provide security assurances” against a nuclear attack on Iran — a clear allusion to Israel.

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