VIENNA, Austria – Iran (search) has exempted some centrifuges from an agreement to freeze uranium enrichment and related activities, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said Thursday, suggesting Tehran may intend to roll back its commitments.
Separately, Mohamed Elbaradei (search) said Pakistan has agreed in principle to have his agency inspect some of its own nuclear equipment to test the veracity of Tehran's claims about Iran's nuclear program.
ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (search), said his inspectors would be able to verify a suspension of all enrichment-related programs "with one exception" — centrifuges that Iran insists are not part of the freeze deal.
His comments to reporters at the start of an IAEA board meeting further complicated the issue of what to do about Iran, which agreed earlier this month to one of the agency's key demands — the suspension of all uranium enrichment and related activities.
The last-minute Iranian attempts to roll back on its commitment — by demanding the right to run centrifuges for what it said were research purposes — fed fears that the Islamic republic may not be keen to ease concerns about its nuclear agenda. Enrichment can produce different grades of uranium that can be used either for fuel or as the core of nuclear warheads.
Iran's push did not seem to represent a major move because thousands of centrifuges must operate for months to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear warhead.
But European diplomats said any determination by ElBaradei that the enrichment freeze was less than 100 percent could turn sentiment against Iran at the meeting and help the American case that Iran should be referred to the U.N. Security Council.
A senior EU diplomat said Iran originally asked to be able to operate more than 100 centrifuges.
ElBaradei said the Iranians were now insisting that about 20 centrifuges be exempted. These, they said, could be monitored by the agency and would use "no nuclear material."
ElBaradei suggested Iran might back down on the issue soon, telling reporters: "I hope that the remaining one issue on complete suspension would resolve itself in the next 24 hours or so."
The board also will discuss past secret South Korean experiments in plutonium separation and uranium enrichment. Diplomats said South Korea's government likely would be reprimanded, but any decision on referring it to the Security Council for contravening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty would be deferred until agency investigations were complete.
While the IAEA viewed the South Korean violations as "a matter of serious concern. ... we are also saying that we have not seen any continuation of these experiments," ElBaradei said.
But Iran appeared to be the top agenda item. A report summarizing 11/2 years of IAEA investigations for the meeting says the agency remains unable to determine if nearly two decades of nuclear activities were purely peaceful — as Tehran claims — or if the government had a secret weapons agenda, as asserted by the United States.
ElBaradei suggested the agreement by Pakistan — long secretive about its nuclear activities — could help resolve the origin of enriched uranium in Iran that Tehran insists was inadvertently imported on black market components from Pakistan.
Still the main issue was suspension. Britain — which helped negotiate the enrichment suspension on behalf of the European Union — rejected the Iranian exception demand. A British official said on condition of anonymity that the Nov. 7 agreement would stand.
The deal committed the Iranian regime to full suspension of enrichment and all related activities while the two sides discuss a pact meant to provide Iran with EU technical and economic aid and other concessions.
An Iranian diplomat, who requested anonymity, suggested the issue was a bargaining chip and that his country might relent in exchange for concessions on a resolution being drafted by Britain, France and Germany — the three countries who negotiated the Nov. 7 deal. He said the draft had to be free of even the slightest allusion to possibly referring Iran's nuclear dossier to the Security Council.
Even before the exemption demand, Iran had cast doubt on its interest in reducing international distrust by continuing enrichment activities until shortly before Monday's freeze deadline.
ElBaradei said Thursday the Iranians processed about 31/2 tons of raw uranium into a gas used as feedstock for enrichment.
A diplomat said the centrifuges Iran wanted exempted were at the central city of Natanz — where Iran says it ultimately plans to run 50,000 centrifuges for what it says will be the fuel requirements of a nuclear reactor for an electricity-generating plant expected to be finished next year.
For now, Iran is far short of that goal, possessing less than 1,000 centrifuges — most bought secretly through the black market network of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Kahn (search) with the rest made domestically.
But experts estimate the Iranians are not far from being able to run 1,500 centrifuges, which could process enough enriched uranium for one warhead a year.