Iran resumed uranium conversion on Monday at its facility near Isfahan, a move EU officials have warned will probably see its nuclear case sent to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.
“The uranium conversion facility in Isfahan has started its activities under IAEAsupervision,” Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters at the plant.
Iran agreed to suspend all nuclear fuel work last November as part of a deal with the European Union while both sides explored a long-term arrangement for Iran’s nuclear program.
But Tehran has complained about the slow pace of the negotiations and on Saturday rejected an EU proposal offering it economic and political incentives to halt nuclear fuel work for good.
At the Isfahan plant two workers wearing white overalls, face masks and hard hats lifted a barrel full of uranium yellow cake, opened its lid and fed it into the processing line.
Other workers at the plant watched excitedly via closed circuit television screens.
A nuclear scientist at the site, who declined to be named, said: “I am excited, I didn’t believe it until the last moment thinking this may not happen, but now I am very happy.”
Earlier a Reuters journalist, among a small group of local and foreign reporters invited to visit the plant, said it was surrounded by dozens of anti-aircraft batteries, patrolled by heavy security and surrounded by barbed wire fences.
The plant is in a dry industrial area about 20 km (12.5 miles) southeast of Isfahan.
Iran denies U.S. accusations that its nuclear program is a front for bomb-making. It says it needs to develop nuclear power as an alternative energy source to meet booming electricity demand and preserve its oil and gas reserves for export.
It has offered to export the uranium hexafluoride produced at Isfahan to allay Western concerns that it could be enriched into bomb-grade material.
NEW NUCLEAR CHIEF
The former state broadcasting head Ali Larijani, a conservative with close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will replace Hassan Rohani as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, the official IRNA news agency reported on Monday.
European diplomats had expressed concerns that pragmatic cleric Rohani, who has led Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the EU since 2003, may be replaced by a more hardline official when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office this month, signaling a hardening of Iran’s nuclear policy stance.
Britain, Germany and France have called an emergency meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors for Tuesday to warn Iran not to resume work at Isfahan.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy on Friday called on Iran to “listen to reason” and said if Iran resumed its nuclear activities, “the international community will surely bring the issue to the Security Council.”
Iran on Saturday rejected a package of economic and political incentives presented by the EU’s big three countries aimed at persuading Tehran to scrap nuclear fuel work for good.
Iranian officials said the EU proposal, which included offers of help to develop civilian nuclear energy and in becoming a major transit route for Central Asian oil, was unacceptable because it denied Iran the right to produce its own nuclear fuel for power reactors.
However, Iran has so far been careful to stress that it is not restarting work on the most sensitive element of the nuclear fuel cycle — uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to make reactor fuel or atomic warheads.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry said on Sunday Tehran had nothing to fear from referral of its case to the Security Council.
The IAEA has been investigating Iran’s nuclear program for three years after an exiled Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of undisclosed facilities there.
While the IAEA has highlighted numerous failures by Iran to report potentially weapons-related activities, it has found no “smoking gun” that would confirm U.S. suspicions that it is secretly trying to make bombs.