UN team begins inspection in Iran
Takes first look at enrichment facility
TEHRAN - UN inspectors entered a once-secret uranium enrichment facility with bunker-like construction and heavy military protection that raised Western suspicions about the extent and intent of Iran’s nuclear program.
The visit yesterday by the four-member International Atomic Energy Agency team, reported by state media, was the first independent look inside the planned nuclear fuel lab, a former ammunition dump burrowed into the treeless hills south of Tehran and publicly disclosed only last month.
The inspectors are expected to study plant blueprints, interview workers, and take soil samples before wrapping up the three-day mission.
No results from the inspection are expected until the team leaves the country, but some Iranian officials hailed the visit as an example that their nuclear program was open to international scrutiny.
“IAEA inspectors’ visit to Fordo shows that Iran’s nuclear activities are transparent and peaceful,’’ the official IRNA news agency quoted lawmaker Hasan Ebrahimi as saying.
Another test of Iran’s cooperation is fast approaching, however. Iran has promised to respond this week to a UN-brokered deal to process its nuclear fuel abroad - a plan designed to ease Western fears about Iran’s potential ability to produce weapons-grade material.
The inspection of Iran’s second enrichment site came about a month after Tehran disclosed its existence in a letter to the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. The notification to the UN agency came just days before President Obama and other Western leaders said Iran has been hiding the facility from the world for years.
After Iran’s disclosure, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that “the burden of proof is on Iran’’ to convince the international community its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iran says that by reporting the existence of the site voluntarily, it “preempted a conspiracy’’ by the United States and its allies who were hoping to present the site as evidence that Iran was developing its nuclear program in secret.
But the new facility, about 20 miles north of Qom, immediately raised suspicions about the aim of the nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful research and energy production. The site is reached by tunnels and is protected by military installations, Iranian officials said last month.
Iran says the facility, known as Fordo after a village believed to have the largest percentage of fighters killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, was fortified to protect against any possible attack by the United States or Israel.
Officials say the plant won’t be operational for another 18 months and would produce uranium enrichment levels up to 5 percent, suitable only for peaceful purposes.