Anger as Iran holds up IAEA inspectors' visit

By James Blitz (London) and Daniel Dombey (Washington) | FT.com | October 5, 2009

Britain on Monday expressed irritation that the International Atomic Energy Agency was being forced to wait three weeks before being given access to Iran's hitherto secret enrichment plant, amid fears that the delay could allow Tehran to cover up possible evidence of military links to its nuclear programme.

Although Iran agreed at the weekend that it would allow the IAEA, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, into its second uranium plant at Qom on October 25, the UK expressed anger that the organisation was being forced to wait so long.

"It is important that IAEA inspectors are given access to Qom immediately," said a senior British government official. "We regret that Iran is delaying this until October 25. We see no reason for a delay. What possible reason can there be for it?"

US officials say Iran was forced to disclose the existence of the Qom plant to the IAEA last month after realising US intelligence knew of its existence. The entry of inspectors into the Qom plant is one of a number of confidence-building measures that the international community wants ahead of another round of talks with Tehran in the next few weeks.

Another key measure that western powers seek is Iran's formal agreement to export some 85 per cent of its current stock of low enriched uranium to Russia and France.

The export would allow the LEU to be processed into fuel that helps create medical isotopes for cancer treatment. European diplomats made clear yesterday that Iran would establish confidence with this measure only if the 1,200kg of LEU were to leave the country in one go.

"We don't think it can be taken out gradually," said a British diplomat. "The stock of LEU could be put in a container and shipped out at once."

However, diplomats from France and Israel believe Iran will insist on reducing its stockpile in incremental steps.

"If they insist on removing only 100kg a month of LEU, it hardly builds confidence, especially if they simply go on producing fresh stocks at the same rate of 100kg a month," said one diplomat.

US officials describe the agreement as not only a temporary confidence-building measure but also as a way to deal with one of the main elements of Iran's emerging nuclear weapons capability its stockpile of low enriched uranium.

"This makes sense from an Iranian perspective: they don't have the capability to make fuel for the research reactor. And it makes sense from our perspective: it reduces their stockpile of LEU. The accumulation of LEU was a serious source of tension," a US official told the Financial Times after last week's Geneva talks.