VIENNA – Iran has rebuffed a bid from the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency to beef up its monitoring ability at an important key atomic site as it tries to keep track of Tehran's rapidly growing uranium enrichment capabilities, diplomats said Thursday.
The diplomats said the Islamic Republic in recent weeks turned down a request from the International Atomic Energy Agency to place one or more additional surveillance cameras at the Natanz enrichment site.
In addition, they said, the agency was concerned Iran would use its recent denial of access to Natanz to agency inspectors seeking a surprise visit as a precedent, further hampering the U.N. agency's need to increase its oversight.
The three diplomats — all from IAEA member nations — said it was possible that Iran could reconsider, emphasizing that talks continued between the agency and Iranian officials on the surveillance and inspection issues. They demanded anonymity in comments to The Associated Press because their information was confidential.
Still, Iran's reluctance to allow the agency to upgrade its monitoring is troubling at a time of rapid expansion both of the number of uranium enriching machines and their ability to produce material that could be upgraded into weapons-grade uranium.
Since Iran's clandestine enrichment efforts were revealed more than six years, ago, the country has steadily expanded activities at its cavernous underground facility at Natanz, a city about 300 miles (500 kilometers) south of Tehran.
An IAEA report circulated last week said nearly 5,000 centrifuges were now enriching at Natanz — about 1,000 more than at the time of the last agency report, issued in February — with more than 2,000 others ready to start enriching.
Iran says it is interested in producing only low-enriched uranium for fuel use, not highly enriched material for the fissile core of nuclear weapons, and the international nuclear agency has detected no effort at Natanz to contravene its assertion.
Still, if Iran decided to risk an international crisis by reconfiguring its centrifuge setup, it would have the ability to process its low-enriched material into weapons-grade uranium.
Most experts estimate that the over 1,000 kilograms — 2,200 pounds — of low-enriched uranium Iran had accumulated by February was already enough to produce enough weapons-grade material through further enrichment for one nuclear weapon.
And as it expands its operations at Natanz, its potential capacity to produce highly enriched uranium is also growing.
Last week, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security estimated that, with the nearly 5,000 centrifuges now fully operating, Iran could accumulate enough material to produce weapons-grade uranium for two warheads by the end of February 2010. And if it brought the more than 2,000 additional machines now on standby on line immediately, that breakthrough would be achieved within six months, it said.