United Nations Says Iran Blocking Access on Nukes

Agency says Tehran's lack of transparency is a "serious concern."

Sept. 15, 2008 — -- The United Nations nuclear watchdog agency today accused Iran of blocking its attempts to investigate the country's nuclear program.

In a new report, the International Atomic Energy Association said Tehran has yet to comply with requests for transparency and access to its controversial Natanz nuclear facilities.

The IAEA says its monitors have "not been able to make substantive progress" in investigating Iran's nuclear activities since its last report was issued in May. The new report calls the matter a "serious concern."

Despite demands by the United Nations Security Council that Iran halt nuclear enrichment, the country continues to make progress in growing its nuclear capability, according to the new report.

It says that Iran is now spinning 3,820 centrifuges, a process that can enrich uranium for use in a nuclear weapon. That is an increase of 500 centrifuges since May.

"It's a bigger jump than we expected," said Jacqueline Shire, an expert at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C. "They are significantly increasing their centrifuge operations."

According to an institute analysis, Iran's centrifuges have been operating at 80 percent capacity since May -- up from an estimated 50 percent from February to May.

The IAEA also warns that Iran may be taking steps to weaponize its nuclear capability.

"There remain a number of outstanding issues [from the last IAEA report] ... which give rise to concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," according to the new report.

Specifically, the IAEA warns that Iran may be modifying its long-range missiles to carry a nuclear warhead.

The report also contains a new warning that the IAEA has obtained information that Iran's nuclear research of "a hemispherical high-explosive charge suitable for an implosion type nuclear device ... may have involved the assistance of foreign expertise."

The report provided no further details of that foreign assistance but stated that "Iran has been informed of the details of this information and has been asked to clarify this matter."

The United States and other world powers have sought to curb Iran's nuclear program and have imposed three rounds of United Nations sanctions on Tehran for its failure to halt nuclear enrichment.

Last spring, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, known collectively as the P5+1, offered a package of incentives for Tehran to suspend enrichment. The offer was a "refreshed" version of an offer made initially in June 2006.

After Tehran failed to respond positively to the recent offer, the United States resumed implementing the sanctions.

Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, Iran's main shipping company, and accused it of facilitating transport for Iran's ministry of defense and for providing logistical support for Iran's armed forces.

Several of the company's subsidiaries were already under U.N. sanctions. The parent company was accused of evading detection of its actions by falsifying documents and using generic terms on manifests to obfuscate the identity of its cargo.

The Treasury Department specifically cited certain chemicals that were transported for eventual use in Iran's missile program.

The British Foreign Office said today it would "push hard for UN sanctions in the coming weeks" in response to the IAEA report.

The United States has supported the push for more sanctions, but has faced strong opposition from Russia and China, which hold veto power on the Security Council.