TEHRAN (Reuters) â€” Iran announced on Tuesday it would resume atomic fuel research and development next week, raising the spectre of a fresh showdown with the West which suspects Tehran wants nuclear technology to build bombs.
The news coincided with strong hints from Iran’s foreign ministry that Tehran would reject a Russian compromise proposal aimed at defusing Iran’s nuclear row with the West.
The two developments were likely to spark renewed calls from Washington and the European Union for the case to be referred to the UN Security Council, where Iran could face political or economic sanctions.
“The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran has decided to resume from January 9, 2006, R&D (research and development) on the peaceful nuclear energy programme which was suspended,” Iran said in a note delivered to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.
Diplomats said the move, which follows Iran’s resumption of uranium conversion in August, was a serious blow to diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.
“This does not help the process,” said an EU diplomat, referring to efforts by the EU trio of Britain, Germany and France to find a negotiated solution to the standoff.
A resumption of nuclear research and development, frozen voluntarily by Iran two years ago to defuse international pressure over its atomic ambitions, may include the manufacture and assembly of centrifuges used for uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of the nuclear fuel cycle. It could also include some small-scale enrichment tests.
The IAEA found in 2003 that Iran had conducted considerable clandestine research, including enrichment tests and centrifuge assembly, since the mid-1980s. But it has not detected any clear proof that Tehran wants to build atomic weapons.
A Security Council referral vote could be held at the next meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation governing board, scheduled for March 6. At its last session in November, the board opted to put off any vote to give time for Russia’s proposal to bear fruit.
IAEA chief Mohammad Al Baradei urged Iran to cooperate more with his agency and to keep diplomatic channels open.
“The director general… continues to call on Iran to take the steps the IAEA requires to resolve outstanding issues regarding the nature of Iranâ€™s nuclear programme,” the IAEA said in a statement.
“In the meantime, Dr Al Baradei also calls on Iran to take voluntary measures to build confidence, and enable the resumption of dialogue with all concerned parties.”
Iran, which says its nuclear programme will only be used for peaceful purposes, voluntarily suspended atomic research as well as all uranium processing and enrichment under negotiations with the EU trio that began in 2003.
Tehran began to roll back its suspension of nuclear work in August by restarting its uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, prompting the “EU3” to freeze its talks with Iran. The talks resumed in December and the sides are to meet again this month.
“Iran’s decision will probably raise the temperature around the talks,” said a diplomat close to the IAEA.
Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, stressed that the actual enrichment of uranium, through injecting gas into centrifuges at Iran’s unfinished Natanz facility, would not be resumed for now.
“That will be a separate issue on which no decision has yet been made,” he told Iranian state television.
Earlier on Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi poured cold water on a Russian proposal aimed at easing Western concerns that Iran could get its hands on bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium.
“The Russian proposal is ambiguous,” Asefi told a weekly news conference. “If they want to propose enrichment [only] in Russia we have said it is not acceptable. But if it is a complementary or parallel plan, we will study that.”
A Russian delegation is due in Tehran on Jan. 7 to hold further talks on the proposal.