by GEORGE JAHN
VIENNA, Austria – New findings by the U.N. atomic agency appear to strengthen Iran’s claim it has not enriched uranium domestically and weaken U.S. arguments that the country is hiding a nuclear weapons program, diplomats said Tuesday.
The diplomats, who are familiar with Iran’s nuclear dossier, told The Associated Press that the International Atomic Energy Agency has established that at least some enriched particles found in Iran originated in Pakistan.
The origin of hundreds of other samples has not been established. Still, the findings bolsters Tehran’s assertion that all such traces were inadvertently imported on “contaminated” equipment it bought on the black market.
The findings also could hurt the case being built by the United States and its allies, which accuse Iran of past covert enrichment in efforts toward making nuclear weapons.
In Washington, the Bush administration said it was awaiting hearing the full report on the U.N. agency’s findings and was unswayed in its suspicions about Iran’s covert nuclear agenda – regardless of whether it enriching uraniaum at home or obtaining it elsewhere.
“Obviously, we think Iran has a weapons program, we think the evidence points to that,” said Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman. “What’s troubling is that there are not clear, consistent answers that are provided in an open and transparent way … as promised.”
The origin of the enriched uranium has been a focus of investigations by the IAEA as it has tried for months to determine whether Iran violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Faced with evidence, Iran over the past year has acknowledged clandestinely assembling a centrifuge program to enrich uranium for what it says are plans to produce electricity, but it denied actually embarking on the process.
Enrichment occurs when uranium hexaflouride gas is spun through thousands of centrifuges in series to gain increasingly higher levels of a compound that can reach weapons grade above 90 percent.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog refused to comment Tuesday. IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said any new findings would be contained in a report being prepared for a Sept. 13 meeting of the agency’s board of governors.
The report, being written by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, will review the agency’s progress in answering questions about nearly two decades of secret nuclear activities by Iran that were first revealed in 2003.
Most suspicions focus on the sources of traces of highly enriched uranium and the extent and nature of work on the advanced P-2 centrifuge, used to enrich uranium.
The diplomats, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, said the agency had only been able to conclusively link one sample – with particles enriched to 54 percent – found at one Iranian site to Pakistan. But another sampling enriched to a lower degree might also have come on equipment bought from the network headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, they said.
They said the findings strengthened Iran’s hand ahead of the September meeting, even if the agency still was far from establishing the origin of hundreds of other traces of enriched uranium found in Iran.
The diplomats said lack of clarity on that issue – as well as Tehran’s past cover-ups, spotty record of cooperation with the IAEA, and insistence on the right to enrich uranium – keep it high on the IAEA agenda.
“It’s a boost for Tehran,” one diplomat said of the enriched uranium finding. “But there are other things it still needs to worry about.”
Still, experts said the reported findings could hurt U.S. hopes that international impatience with Iranian foot-dragging could translate into support for referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council.
“This is definitely one for Iran’s side, and it’s a strike against the hard-liners who want to make a case that Iran is (consistently) lying,” said David Albright, a former Iraq nuclear inspector who runs the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
Washington’s hopes received a boost last week with Iran’s continued insistence on its right to enrich uranium and other demands alienated key European powers France, Britain and Germany.
In a “wish list” presented to the European three and shared with The Associated Press, Iran called on them to back its right to “dual use” nuclear technology that has both peaceful and weapons applications.
The Iranians also asked the European to sell them conventional weapons and indirectly demanded they stick to any deal reached to supply them with nuclear technology even if international sanctions are later imposed on Tehran.
As well, the “wish list” called for a strong European commitment to a non-nuclear Middle East and “security assurances” against a nuclear attack on Iran – both allusions to Israel, which is believed to have nuclear arms and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in a 1981 airstrike to prevent it from making atomic arms.
France, Germany and Britain last year had held out the prospect of supplying Iran with some “dual use” technology, but only in the distant future, and only if suspicions that Tehran might be seeking to make nuclear weapons were laid to rest.
With Iran still under investigation, the presentation of the wish list stunned senior French, German and British negotiators, according to an EU official familiar with the Paris meeting.