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Iran bars U.N. inspectors after criticism from nuclear agency


Los Angeles Times
Sunday, March 14, 2004

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The United Nations' nuclear watchdog voted Saturday to criticize Iran for concealing information and activities related to its nuclear program, prompting Tehran to bar U.N. inspectors from the country until further notice.

Iranian officials accused the United States of imposing the resolution on the International Atomic Energy Agency board in Vienna, Austria, and linked its decision to keep inspectors out to the board's resolution.

"We will not allow them to come until Iran sets a new date for their visit," Hassan Rohani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said in Tehran. "This is a protest by Iran in reaction to the passage of the resolution."

The agency has been conducting inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities for several months, and a senior U.S. official said late Saturday that the round scheduled to begin this weekend was to focus on a huge underground enrichment facility being built near the central Iranian city of Natanz.

Last year inspectors discovered traces of weapons-grade uranium at Natanz, raising suspicions about the activities under way there.

Tehran had abruptly postponed the inspection Friday, saying that it conflicted with preparations for the Iranian new year, which begins March 20. Rohani's edict appeared to turn the delay into a freeze, at least for the time being.

Diplomats and officials close to the agency said it was too early to tell whether the ban on inspections was a politically calculated outburst to satisfying a domestic audience or an effort to keep inspectors from further examinations of its nuclear facilities.

"It's either a fit of pique because they had a painful week, or maybe the IAEA was getting close to hitting a real nerve and they needed time to hide material," a senior diplomat said in Vienna.

The United States has accused Iran of operating a clandestine nuclear weapons program and the American ambassador to the agency, Kenneth Brill, called the inspection delay "very troubling."

Iran says its nuclear program is strictly for generating electricity and that the agency should have given it a clean bill of health instead of a stinging criticism.

The agency's resolution "deplores" Iran's concealment of sensitive nuclear technology in an October declaration that it submitted to the agency and promised was complete. Inspectors later discovered undeclared research on advanced centrifuges that could produce weapons-grade uranium.

The resolution said the board would decide in June whether to respond further to the omissions after receiving another report from the inspection team.

While the document does not mention responses, diplomats said Iran could be referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible economic sanctions.


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