UN Nuclear Agency Meets to Discuss Iran

VIENNA -- Key members of the UN atomic watchdog agency Monday gathered for a session on approving the suspension of dozens of technical aid programs to Iran as part of Security Council sanctions meant to punish Tehran for its nuclear defiance.

The focus of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-nation board meeting will be on Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment activities and linked problems.

Diplomats familiar with the agency's Iran file said before the closed meeting that Tehran continued to refuse IAEA requests to put up cameras that would give agency monitors a full view of in its underground hall at Natanz, which Iran says will ultimately house 54,000 enriching centrifuges -- enough to produce dozens of nuclear weapons per year.

The Islamic republic insists it has a right to enrichment to generate nuclear energy. But growing fears about the program's other possible application -- creating the fissile material for nuclear warheads -- led the UN Security Council late last year to impose sanctions on Tehran.

Lack of full remote monitoring means that the agency cannot keep tabs on all activities at the bunker, said one of the diplomats, who demanded anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the confidential file. Iran continues to assemble individual centrifuges in the hall, after setting up hundreds of them earlier this year, he said.

Iran's decision in late January to bar 38 inspectors from entering the country also was burdening relations with the agency, another diplomat said. In taking such action, Iran claimed to have found one senior expert "spying for his home country" in 2006 by using wiretapping equipment to collect information outside the purview of nuclear inspections, the diplomat said.

IAEA officials said they would not comment on the claim.

Up for review will be a Feb. 22 report from IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei finding that, instead of suspending enrichment, Tehran has expanded such activities. That conclusion -- which violated a Security Council ultimatum -- has led to a new round of council consultations on widening sanctions.

The board was also expected to approve last month's decision by ElBaradei to suspend nearly half the technical aid his agency provides to Iran. Such a move would be symbolically significant because only North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq had faced such punishment in the past.

The decision would be in line with existing UN Security Council sanctions.

ElBaradei, in an internal report circulated to board members last month, had called for full or partial suspension of 18 projects that he deemed could be misused to create nuclear weapons. His agency had already suspended aid to Iran in five instances in January.

In the past, the board has often been split on what action to take against Iran. The United States, its key allies and most European states have usually been opposed by nonaligned board members who were against harsh punishment.

But the diplomats said even countries normally backing Tehran would likely agree to the suspensions because of the UN Security Council's backing.