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Iran Converts Uranium in Defiance of UN


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By Francois Murphy VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran defied the United Nations (news - web sites) on Tuesday by announcing it has begun converting a large amount of raw uranium to prepare it for enrichment, a process that can be used to develop atomic bombs.

The announcement was likely to provoke an angry reaction from Washington and increase suspicion in Israel, which plans to buy 500 "bunker buster" bombs from the United States that could take out Iran's underground atomic facilities.

Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters Iran had begun converting 37 tonnes of raw "yellowcake" uranium to process it for use in nuclear centrifuges -- the machines that enrich uranium.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, adopted a resolution on Saturday calling on Iran to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment. The United States, Russia and the European Union (news - web sites) reinforced the message on Monday by urging Tehran to comply.

"Some of the amount of the 37 tonnes has been used. The tests have been successful but these tests have to be continued using the rest of the material," said Aghazadeh, one of Iran's vice presidents, who is attending a general conference of the Vienna-based IAEA.

One nuclear expert has said that once converted from yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride, the feed material for enrichment centrifuges, Iran would eventually be able to enrich enough uranium for up to five nuclear weapons.

The IAEA is aware of Iran's plan to convert the uranium for the enrichment process and said it would monitor the tests.

"IAEA (chief) Mohamed ElBaradei continues to call on Iran, as did the board, to suspend such a test as part of their confidence building measures," spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (news - web sites) said Iran was determined to press ahead with its atomic program even if it brought an end to U.N. checks of the Islamic Republic's nuclear sites.

"We are determined to obtain peaceful atomic technology even if it causes the stop of international supervision," he said.


They (Iran) have a continuous record of making and then breaking promises, both to the board as well as to others," a State Department official said in New York, where Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) is attending the U.N. General Assembly.

"This is the pattern of a country that has not made the strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons program."

Iran had promised Britain, France and Germany last October it would freeze all activities related to uranium enrichment.

But Tehran angered the EU's "big three" by announcing earlier this year that the production of feed material for centrifuges would not be included in the freeze.

The resolution said the IAEA board would consider whether "further steps" would be necessary if Iran failed to implement the suspension -- which diplomats said would mean a referral to the U.N. Security Council and possibly economic sanctions.

The United States and some other nations believe Tehran intends to use fissile material for weapons. Iran denies that and says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.

Israel has made clear it will never permit Iran, which does not recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist, to become a nuclear power.

Diplomats and analysts say Israel would prefer diplomacy to war and a coalition if military action were needed against Iran, but is ready to act alone if needed.

In June, the Pentagon (news - web sites) said it was considering the sale to Israel of 500 BLU-109 bombs, designed to destroy reinforced targets, as part of a munitions package meant "to contribute significantly to U.S. strategic and tactical objectives."

Israeli security sources said the sale would go through and one told Reuters: "This is not the sort of ordnance needed for the Palestinian front. Bunker busters could serve Israel against Iran, or possibly Syria."

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Louis Charbonneau in Vienna and Arshad Mohammed in New York)

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