The UN nuclear agency is meeting to assess Iran's nuclear capabilities. US Admiral Mike Mullen (pictured) said Sunday that Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, the first time the US has publicised such an assessment.
AFP - The UN atomic watchdog met here Monday to discuss its deadlocked investigation into Iran's disputed nuclear drive and allegations that Syria was also engaged in illicit atomic work.
At its first meeting since the change of president in the United States, the 35-member board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency will also discuss who will take over from Mohamed ElBaradei, who steps down as IAEA director general in November.
The IAEA's six years of investigation into Iran's nuclear activities is deadlocked, with Tehran refusing to suspend uranium enrichment despite repeated United Nations sanctions. It is also stonewalling questions on the possible military dimensions of past nuclear work.
The meeting, slated to last all week, is the first since US President Barack Obama took office and said Washington could be ready for direct talks with Iran.
But Iran's first satellite launch and the announcement that its first nuclear power plant in Bushehr could go on line within months have heightened concerns in many Western countries.
The assessment that Tehran may soon have sufficient nuclear material to build a bomb has also raised fears about nuclear proliferation.
A top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, told CNN Sunday that Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb, the first time that Washington has made such an assessment.
But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was more cautious.
"They're not close to a weapon at this point," he said.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi denied that Tehran was seeking to make a nuclear bomb.
"All this talk is baseless," he said.
According to the IAEA, Tehran now has 1,010 kilogrammes of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride from its enrichment activities at a plant at Natanz.
That "is sufficient for a nuclear weapons breakout capability," according to David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on Iran's nuclear programme.
A breakout capability is when there is sufficient low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is used for nuclear fuel, to turn into high-enriched uranium (HEU) needed for an atomic bomb.
While IAEA experts put the amount needed at about 1,700 kilogrammes of LEU, some analysts believe that smaller quantities might be enough.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, insisted that Natanz was not configured to produce HEU.
Round-the-clock camera surveillance, the presence of inspectors and the ability of UN inspectors to make unannounced inspections made it "practically impossible" for Iran to switch from making low-enriched to high-enriched uranium, he said.
The IAEA is also worried about Syria where UN inspectors first went last June to investigate allegations that Damascus had a secret North Korea-designed nuclear reactor in a remote desert, until it was bombed by Israeli jets in September 2007.
Syria rejects the accusations, but the IAEA has found unexplained traces of uranium and graphite at the site and is demanding an explanation.
The head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, Ibrahim Othman, disputed the IAEA's findings last week and told diplomats the site was now a missile facility and the agency had no right to visit.
The IAEA board's other concern is ElBaradei's successor after 12 years in the post.
There are currently only two candidates, Japanese ambassador Yukiya Amano and South Africa's Abdul Samad Minty.
Amano is believed to have garnered more votes than Minty, but some diplomats say he may not be able to secure the necessary two-thirds majority.
Minty also said the race was not yet over.
"From what I understand, around a third of board members is still undecided," he told AFP.
Date created : 2009-03-02