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Monday, 10 February, 2003, 14:29 GMT
UN plays down Iran nuclear plans
Aerial view of Iran's first nuclear reactor (Bushehr)
Iran's nuclear industry is rapidly taking shape
The United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency has played down an unexpected announcement that Iran is to widen greatly the scope of its nuclear programme.

"This comes as no surprise to us," International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on Monday.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
We need to complete the circle from discovering uranium to managing remaining spent fuel

Mohammad Khatami
Iranian president
Her statement came a day after Iran's President Mohammad Khatami announced that the country has its own deposits of uranium and has begun extraction to produce nuclear fuel.

The United States has expressed concerns about Iran's nuclear aspirations, but Tehran says nations have "an undeniable right" to pursue nuclear programmes "for peaceful and beneficial purposes".

The US - which last year labelled Iran as part of an "axis of evil" - considers the Islamic Republic a state sponsor of terrorism and believes it is seeking to produce nuclear weapons.

Mining programme

President Khatami announced on Sunday that uranium was being mined in the Savand area, 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the historic city of Yazd, and processing facilities had been set up in the central cities of Isfahan and Kashan.

Melissa Fleming IAEA spokeswoman
The Iranians announced to us officially in September their plans to develop an ambitious nuclear power programme that would include the entire nuclear fuel cycle

Melissa Fleming,
IAEA spokeswoman
A day later, the head of Iran's atomic energy agency said construction had begun on a plant that would produce enriched uranium, a potential ingredient of nuclear weapons.

"We still have a long way to go to have this plant come on-stream," the official, Gholamreza Agazadeh, said, according to the Reuters news agency.

The IAEA spokeswoman said Iran had made its intentions clear months ago.

"The Iranians announced to us officially in September their plans to develop an ambitious nuclear power programme that would include the entire nuclear fuel cycle," Ms Fleming said.

Inspection offer

Iran has offered to let the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, inspect its facilities during an already-scheduled visit on 25-26 February.

The United States has expressed concern over Russia supplying nuclear technology to Iran.

Satellite image of Arak site (Picture from Digital Globe)
The US believes Iran's new facilities could produce nuclear weapons
Tehran says it is pursuing a nuclear programme for energy production only, but the US last year produced satellite photographs of Iranian sites it says could be used for producing nuclear weapons.

President Khatami appeared to suggest in a televised statement on Sunday that Iran wished to retain spent nuclear fuel - a component in the production of nuclear weapons - from its future power plants.

Reassurance

Russia has in the past reassured the US that any fuel supplied to Iran would be returned when spent.

Atomic ambitions
First nuclear plant comes online by summer 2004
Has signed up to the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty
Can now supply its own power stations with nuclear fuel
"If we need to produce electricity from our nuclear power plants, we need to complete the circle from discovering uranium to managing remaining spent fuel," President Khatami said.

"The government is determined to complete that circle."

Mr Khatami did not say if the announcement of Iran's own uranium deposits undercut the deal with Moscow to receive Russian nuclear fuel.

Iran says it needs nuclear energy to help supply the electricity needs of its 65 million people.

Washington has suggested that the country's vast existing oil and gas resources are already adequate.

To date, Iran has only one, Russian-built reactor, near the south-western port of Bushehr, which is due to be commissioned either in late 2003 or the early summer of 2004. The contract is worth about $800m to Moscow.

See also:

11 Feb 03 | Middle East
26 Dec 02 | Middle East
14 Dec 02 | Middle East
16 Aug 02 | Middle East
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