VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran broke a transparency law of the U.N. nuclear watchdog by failing to disclose much earlier a nuclear plant being built for uranium enrichment, agency director Mohamed ElBaradei said in a televised interview.
Iran reported the site to the International Atomic Energy Agency on September 21. Western powers said Tehran was forced to do so after learning they were about to discover a plant whose construction began 3-1/2 years ago.
Western diplomatic sources said the plant was hidden inside a mountainside on a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards base near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom. It heightened suspicions of a covert Iranian aim to develop atomic bombs, they said.
Iran has said the site is meant for enriching uranium only to low levels for civilian energy, like its much larger Natanz enrichment complex which is under IAEA monitoring, and that it had no legal obligation to reveal it until now.
“Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that,” he said in an interview with CNN-India during a visit to New Delhi, in remarks relayed by the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters.
“They are saying that this was meant to be a back-up facility in case we (Iran) were attacked, and so they could not tell us earlier on,” ElBaradei said.
“Nonetheless, they have been on the wrong side of the law, you know, in so far as informing the agency about the construction and as you have seen it, it has created concern in the international community.
“(This) has been a setback to the principle of transparency, to the effort by the international community to build confidence about the Iranian nuclear programme because Iran has been on the wrong side of the law in so far as to inform the agency at an earlier date,” said ElBaradei.
An IAEA statute modified in 1992 requires states to notify inspectors as soon as a decision to build a nuclear plant is made. Previously, states could alert the IAEA of a new plant six months before nuclear materials were to be brought into it.
Iran adopted the “Modified Code 3.1” but in 2007 withdrew from it, reverting to the old arrangement in protest at U.N. Security Council sanctions slapped on it over its refusal to suspend enrichment or grant unfettered IAEA inspections.
The IAEA has ruled that states which formally adopted the Code cannot unilaterally go back to the old system. Iran rejects this legal interpretation. It is now the only member state with significant nuclear sites not adhering to the modified code.
ElBaradei also said Iranian nuclear energy chief Ali Salehi had told him that the new plant was far from complete, without centrifuge machines or nuclear material. “It is simply still just ready in terms of cables and construction,” he said.
“But we need to go and impress on him that our inspectors need to go as early as possible to establish the facts,” he said, alluding to the IAEA’s request for full design data and inspector access to verify the site will be for peaceful uses only.
Iranian officials said this week the IAEA would be able to visit the plant site soon, but gave no date.
“There are regular contacts at all levels but they are so far not successful apart from a vague promise access will be granted,” said a senior U.N. official who asked for anonymity due to political sensitivities.
Western analysts said any serious delay in granting IAEA access could raise concern Iran might be “sanitizing” the site to remove possible indications of military configuration.
World powers say they will raise the second enrichment site in talks with Iran in Geneva on Thursday and demand immediate IAEA surveillance. Tehran said it would not discuss the matter.
Editing by Charles Dick