IAEA likely to block Iran atom aid at meeting
VIENNA, Nov 20: The UN nuclear watchdog is likely at a politically charged meeting this week to put on ice Iran's request for help with a heavy-water plant due to fears it could yield plutonium for atom bombs, diplomats say.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation governing board urged Iran in February to ''reconsider'' the Arak reactor project. But Tehran vows to complete it and applied for IAEA technical expertise to ensure the plant meets safety standards.
Although IAEA approval of such requests is usually routine, Western board members say the Arak case must be rejected given Iran's record of evading IAEA non-proliferation inspections and its defiance of UN demands to stop enriching uranium.
But developing nations on the Vienna-based body oppose outright rejection as tantamount to setting a precedent for withholding technical aid to peaceful atomic energy programmes they are pursuing or may consider.
Diplomats said the most likely outcome was a compromise in which the board would defer a decision pending guidance from the UN Security Council, where world powers are mulling sanctions on Iran but are mired in disputes over how tough they should be.
''Deferral is the most likely and wise step here, to avoid alienating developing nations on the board, and in the hope the Security Council will take care of the issue. But the debate could still be ugly,'' said a senior IAEA diplomat.
The Arak case has symbolised the diplomatic crisis over the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.
Tehran says they are limited to generating more electricity.
The United States and European Union fear Iran seeks bombs to threaten Israel and Western interests in the West Asia.
If uranium's fissile element is enriched to a low level, it can fuel power plants. Refined to 80 per cent or more, it becomes the explosive core of nuclear warheads. Plutonium, a byproduct of heavy-water production, is suitable only for bombs.
The 40-megawatt Arak complex is due for completion in 2009. Iran says it will produce isotopes for medical uses, replacing a five-megawatt light-water reactor that predates Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and is now said by Tehran to be obsolete. Western leaders say, citing what they call Iran's history of nuclear subterfuge, there is a high risk Tehran's underlying agenda with Arak is to yield weapons-grade plutonium.
''Given ... the widespread mistrust of Iran's nuclear programme, and the risk of plutonium being diverted for use in a weapon, the United States and other board members cannot agree to have the IAEA assist the project at Arak,'' Gregory Schulte, US envoy to the IAEA, said in a speech last week in Vienna.
Iran says the reactor will be built whether IAEA safety aid is granted or not -- one of 820 proposals from 115 nations to be considered by a board committee Monday through Wednesday and ratified at a full board meeting set for Thursday and Friday.
Backed by some fellow members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) developing nations, Iranian IAEA envoy Aliasghar Soltanieh has accused the West of politicising a technical aid process ''that should be impartial and professional''.
He warned board delegates at an informal meeting last week ''not to give a negative impression'' to Iran's parliament which has drafted a bill to curb IAEA inspections if Tehran faces sanctions, a diplomat at the gathering said.
Soltanieh told Reuters that the international community had an overriding interest in ensuring safety at nuclear sites.
IAEA diplomats said legal experts in the agency Secretariat had judged the Arak request legitimate as it did not involve enrichment-related or fuel-reprocessing activities the Security Council ordered to be suspended.
''If developed nations are going to start micromanaging technical aid for developing nations, that is very serious and cause for anger,'' said a West Asian diplomat in the NAM.
But diplomats on both sides agreed aid for Arak would fail to win a majority if put to a rare board vote. Most members would accept a pre-negotiated consensus for deferral, they said.