New traces of plutonium and enriched uranium - both potential material for nuclear warheads - have turned up in Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Tuesday.
As IAEA head Mohamed Elbaradei disclosed the findings in a report, Iran's president said he was optimistic Iran would celebrate the completion of its controversial nuclear fuel program within Iran's current calendar year, which ends on March 20, despite international concerns that it could be misused to make weapons. And, he asserted, the world now had no choice but to "live with a nuclear Iran."
The comments by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared overly optimistic. Up to now Teheran has been able to activate only two small experimental pilot enrichment plants that UN officials say have been subject to frequent breakdowns and have produced only small amounts of material suitable for nuclear fuel.
Still Iran has progressed enough since resuming enrichment activities in February to provoke a UN Security Council demand that it freeze its program - a call Teheran has ignored. And its plans are ambitious - Teheran has said it intends to move toward large-scale uranium enrichment involving 3,000 centrifuges by late 2006, and then expand the program to 54,000 centrifuges.
Iranian nuclear officials say 54,000 centrifuges would produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a 1,000-megawatt reactor, such as that at Bushehr, being built by Russia and near completion.
Experts have estimated that - if interested - Iran would need only 1,500 centrifuges to produce a nuclear weapon.
Teheran has denied such ambitions. It insists it seeks enrichment capabilities only to be able to generate low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel and not the highly enriched variety used for weapons.
Similarly, it denies accusations that it is building its heavy water research reactor at Arak because it is interested in its plutonium waste for nuclear arms, asserting it wants the facility only for producing radioactive isotopes used in medical research and treatment.
Still, when finished - probably early in the next decade - Arak could produce enough plutonium for about two bombs a year.
Such facts, coupled to the discovery of a secret Iranian enrichment program in 2003, a series of suspicious revelations by IAEA inspectors that point to possible experiments with weapons applications and Teheran's refusal to cease enrichment, have increased suspicions. The IAEA board in February referred Iran to the council, suggesting it had breached the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and might be trying to make nuclear weapons.
Tuesday's IAEA report, prepared for next week's meeting of the agency's 35-nation board, did little to dispel concerns.
Beyond detailing the new plutonium and enriched uranium findings at a nuclear waste facility, it also faulted Teheran for not cooperating with the agency's attempts to investigate suspicious aspects of Iran's nuclear program. And it said it could not confirm Iranian claims that its nuclear activities were exclusively nonmilitary unless Teheran increased its openness.
"The agency will remain unable to make further progress in its efforts to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran," without additional cooperation from Teheran, said the report.
Such cooperation is a "prerequisite for the agency to be able to confirm the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program," it added.
In New York, John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said Ahmadinejad's boast and the IAEA discoveries of unexplained plutonium and highly enriched uranium traces "both demonstrate the urgency for the Security Council to act on Iran."
"Sanctions are obviously the only means to get Iran's attention," Bolton said in a statement.
As expected, the four-page IAEA report made available to The Associated Press confirmed that Iran continues uranium enrichment experiments in defiance of the UN Security Council.
A senior UN official who was familiar with the report cautioned against reading too much into the new finds of traces of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, saying Iran had provided explanations for both that were now being examined by the agency and - if confirmed - could be plausibly classified as the byproducts of peaceful nuclear activities.
He said that - while the uranium traces were enriched to a higher level than needed to generate power - they were still below weapons-grade.
Still, the newest findings added to revelations of a number of suspicious activities, including plutonium experiments, possession by Iran of diagrams showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of nuclear warheads and other traces of highly enriched uranium at sites linked to military research. As such they were likely to be cited by the United States and other nations suspicious of Tehran's nuclear agenda as adding to circumstantial evidence against it.
As with previous reports, Tuesday's summary listed specific cases of lack of cooperation by Tehran with agency inspectors.
These included refusal to allow the agency to boost monitoring of its enrichment facilities at Natanz; lack of response to request more information on its enrichment program, denial of access to suspicious equipment and to military personnel possibly involved in nuclear activities, denial of a request for a copy of the uranium metal diagrams and refusal to provide information on apparent experiments linking nuclear and ballistic missile research.
The report will be discussed by the board next week at a meeting expected to be dominated by Iran's nuclear program, particularly its intention to ask the agency for technical help for its Arak reactor.
The Vienna-based agency provides technical aid for hundreds of projects to member countries - most of them developing nations, and many of them bearing little obvious connection to nuclear energy programs. They range from using radiation to sterilize tsetse fly eggs to legal and technical expertise in setting up peaceful nuclear programs.
Despite Iranian assertions that Arak will not be misused for weapons manufacture, the American effort appears to be winning support. Seven diplomats, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information, told the AP they believed the board would deny Iran's request.
But even a total denial of technical aid for Arak, while symbolically important, is expected to do little to slow the eventual completion of the reactor, let alone Iran's nuclear program.