UN nuclear watchdog meeting to focus on problems with Iran

Panel seeks to suspend dozens of technical aid programs as part of Security Council sanctions meant to punish Tehran for its nuclear defiance.

Mohamed ElBaradei 88 (photo credit: )
Mohamed ElBaradei 88
(photo credit: )
Key members of the UN atomic watchdog agency gather Monday for a session on approving the suspension of dozens of technical aid programs to Iran as part of Security Council sanctions meant to punish Tehran for its nuclear defiance. The focus of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board meeting will be on Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment activities and linked problems. Diplomats familiar with the agency's Iran file said before the closed meeting that Tehran continues to refuse IAEA requests to put up cameras that would give agency monitors a full view of in its underground hall at Natanz, which Iran says will ultimately house 54,000 enriching centrifuges - enough to produce dozens of nuclear weapons a year. The Islamic republic insists it has a right to enrichment to generate nuclear energy. But growing fears about the program's other application - creating the fissile material for nuclear warheads - led the UN Security Council late last year to impose sanctions on Tehran. Lack of full remote monitoring means the agency cannot keep tabs on all activities at the bunker, said one of the diplomats, who demanded anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the confidential file with the media. Iran continues to assemble individual centrifuges in the hall, after setting up hundreds of them earlier this year, he said. Iran's decision in late January to bar 38 inspectors from entering the country also was burdening relations with the agency, said another diplomat. In taking such action, Iran claimed to have found one senior expert "spying for his home country" in 2006 by using wiretapping equipment to collect information outside the purview of nuclear inspections, the diplomat said. IAEA officials said they would not comment on the claim. Up for review will be a Feb. 22 report from IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei finding that, instead of suspending enrichment, Tehran has expanded such activities. That conclusion - which violated a Security Council ultimatum - has led to a new round of council consultations on widening sanctions. As well, the board was expected to approve last month's decision by ElBaradei to suspend nearly half the technical aid his agency provides to Iran. Such a move would be symbolically significant because only North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq had faced such punishment in the past. The decision would be in line with the existing UN Security Council sanctions. ElBaradei, in an internal report circulated to board members last month, had called for full or partial suspension of 18 projects that he deemed could be misused to create nuclear weapons. His agency had already suspended aid to Iran in five instances in January. The board in the past has often been split on what action to take against Iran. The United States, its key allies and most European nations have usually been opposed by nonaligned board members opposed to harsh punishment. But the diplomats said that even nations normally backing Tehran - including key US critics such as Cuba and Venezuela - would likely agree to the suspensions because they were backed by the UN Security Council. The board will also be reviewing another key nuclear issue - North Korea's apparent willingness to ultimately dismantle its nuclear arms-making capabilities. ElBaradei plans to go to Pyongyang March 13 as part of the six-nation agreement under which North Korea agreed to allow a return of his agency's experts under its commitment to eventually scrap its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and security assurances. North Korea kicked IAEA monitors out in late 2002, at the beginning of the current nuclear standoff, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and reactivating its mothballed nuclear program, which led to its first-ever atomic weapons test in October. The Feb. 13 deal reached in Beijing calls for North Korea to close its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, allow IAEA monitors back to the country to verify the closure, and then disable all its nuclear facilities. In return, North Korea would get economic assistance and political incentives, including creation of a bilateral working group on establishing diplomatic relations with the US UN officials familiar with the North Korea file said the board will likely agree to meet in special session once ElBaradei returns to hear his report and - if positive - formally authorize the return of IAEA inspectors to the North.