Iran has expanded its uranium enrichment program instead of complying with a U.N. Security Council ultimatum to freeze it, the U.N nuclear watchdog agency said Thursday. The finding clears the path for harsher Security Council sanctions against Tehran.
"Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities," said the International Atomic Energy Agency. Although its information was based on material available to it as of Saturday, a senior U.N. official familiar with Iran's nuclear file - who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue - suggested the agency's conclusion remained valid as of Thursday.
In a report, the IAEA detailed recent activities showing Tehran expanding its enrichment efforts - setting up hundreds of uranium-spinning centrifuges in an underground hall and bringing nearly 9 tons of the gaseous feedstock into the facility in preparation for enrichment. And said the report, Iranian officials had informed the agency that they would expand their centrifuge installations to have thousands of them ready by May.
The conclusion - while widely expected - was important because it could serve as the trigger for the council to start deliberating on new sanctions meant to punish Tehran for its nuclear intransigence.
In the report, written by IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei, the agency also said that the Islamic republic continues building both a reactor that will use heavy water and a heavy water production plant - also in defiance of the Security Council.
Both enriched uranium and plutonium produced by heavy water reactors can produce the fissile material used in nuclear warheads. Iran denies such intentions, saying it needs the heavy water reactor to produce radioactive isotopes for medical and other peaceful purposes and enrichment to generate energy.
The six-page report also said that agency experts remain "unable ... to make further progress in its efforts to verify fully the past development of Iran's nuclear program" due to lack of Iranian cooperation. That, too, put it in violation of the Security Council, which on Dec. 23 told Tehran to "provide such access and cooperation as the agency requests to be able to verify ... all outstanding issues" within 60 days.
The report - sent both to the Security Council and the agency's 35 board member nations - set the stage for a fresh showdown between Iran and Western powers.
Even before it was issued, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that the U.S. and its allies would use the U.N. Security Council and other "available channels" to bring Tehran back to negotiations over its nuclear program.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned ... that the Iranian government did not meet the (Wednesday) deadline set by the Security Council."
"I urge again that the Iranian government should fully comply with the Security Council" as soon as possible, he told reporters in Vienna, Austria, saying Iran's nuclear activities had "great implications for peace and security, as well as nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
In addition to the sanctions, the U.S. government has been raising the pressure on Tehran on other fronts, from arresting Iranian officials in Iraq to persuading European governments and financial institutions to cut ties with the Islamic Republic.
Rice, speaking in Berlin, said U.S., European and Russian diplomats all want Iran back at the bargaining table.
"We reconfirmed we will use available channels and the Security Council to try to achieve that goal," she said following a breakfast meeting with her counterparts from Germany, Russia and the European Union.
The Security Council is demanding an immediate and unconditional stop to uranium enrichment, after which European-led negotiations over an economic reward package could begin. Iran has long insisted it will not stop its nuclear activities as a precondition for negotiations.
In moderate remarks Wednesday directed at Washington - the key backer of tougher U.N. action - Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the dispute "has to be decided peacefully with the United States."
But other top Iranian officials used harsher language, and none showed signs of compromise on the main demand of the U.S. and other world powers - a halt to enrichment and related activities.
"The enemy is making a big mistake if it thinks it can thwart the will of the Iranian nation to achieve the peaceful use of nuclear technology," Iranian state TV's Web site quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying Wednesday.
With the United States beefing up naval forces in the Gulf and cracking down on Iranians within Iraq it says are helping Shiite militias, concerns have grown that Washington might be planning military action.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said "the only sensible way" to solve the crisis was to pursue political solutions, but that he could not "absolutely predict every set of circumstances."
Still, "I know of nobody in Washington that is planning military action on Iran," Blair told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "Iran is not Iraq. There is, as far as I know, no planning going on to make an attack on Iran and people are pursuing a diplomatic and political solution."
Tehran's refusal to freeze all its enrichment-related activities prompted the Security Council on Dec. 23 to impose sanctions targeting its nuclear and missile programs and persons involved in them. Back then, it gave the country 60 days to halt enrichment or face additional measures.
Discussions on a new resolution aimed at stepping up pressure on Iran to suspend enrichment were expected to start next week, a Security Council diplomat said in New York, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Part of the sanctions target companies suspected of involvement in Iran's nuclear program - a measure that an Iranian dissident group said Tehran was circumventing by renaming the companies and otherwise disguising them, or setting up new ones.
The National Council of Resistance in Iran said firms under sanctions that were renamed were the Farayand Technique Company and the Pars Thrash Company. It named new companies set up to work on Iran's enrichment programs while avoiding sanctions as Tamin Tajhizat Sanayeh Hasteieh, Shakhes Behbood Sanaat and Sookht Atomi Reactorhaye Iran.
All are headed by Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran's atomic energy programs, and some employ others on the Security Council's list of those involved in Iran's nuclear program, said the group, the political wing of the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, which advocates the overthrow of Iran's Islamic government, the AP says.
There was no independent confirmation of the information provided by the group, which the United States and the European Union list as a terrorist organization. But it has revealed past secret Iranian nuclear activities subsequently verified by the IAEA or governments.
In Tehran, some 400 students rallied Thursday in support of Iran's nuclear program, burning British and Israeli flags and urging the Iranian government not to scale down the program.