ISTANBUL // The International Atomic Energy Agency demanded more information from Iran over the purpose of its recently uncovered nuclear site in Qom, and indicated that the Islamic republic may be hiding other facilities, raising new questions about its nuclear ambitions. "Iran's declaration of the new facility [Qom] reduces the level of confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction and gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities in Iran which [have] not been declared to the agency," the IAEA report said.
"Iran's explanation about the purpose of the facility and the chronology of its design and construction requires further clarification." In its first official report since IAEA inspectors visited the Qom site last month, the UN's atomic watchdog said Tehran's delay in disclosure "does not contribute to the building of confidence". The report also said the IAEA had acquired satellite images indicating some sort of construction work had taken place at Qom between 2002 and 2004 and had resumed in 2006.
Iran said the site was planned as a back-up plant and work on turning it into such a facility began in the second half of 2007. Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, dismissed the report as "repetitive" and vowed that Iran "will continue to exercise its right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, including enrichment". The report came as Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, yesterday said Ankara was still waiting Iran's response to a proposal that it store Iranian uranium on Turkish territory.
Mr Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, told Turkish journalists travelling with him on a visit to Spain that the Iranians had so far not sent an answer to Ankara's proposal to store Iranian uranium. "The Iranians trust us and they also say they do, but there is strong opposition within Iran" against the plan, Mr Davutoglu said, according to media reports yesterday. "They say: 'The problem is not Turkey; the problem is sending uranium out of the country in the first place'."
Iran's acceptance of the Turkish plan would make Ankara a crucial player in resolving the international dispute surrounding Tehran's nuclear programme and boost Ankara's ambition to become a leading regional power and peace broker. Mr Davutoglu said he had participated in an intense round of telephone diplomacy between Ankara, Tehran, the US government and the IAEA during the past 10 days. "From our point of view, the door is open," the minister said. "That means we will store [the uranium] as a kind of trustee."
Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, but the West is concerned that Tehran may have a secret programme to build a nuclear bomb. Negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States - as well as Germany - on the issue have so far failed to produce results. Turkey has not been a party to those negotiations, although Ankara, keen on playing a role in one of the most thorny problems of the region, has tried to mediate and also offered to have the latest round of talks take place in Turkey. The talks were held in Switzerland, but Turkey sent a delegation there, Mr Davutoglu said.
Relations between Turkey and Iran have improved considerably recently, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has publicly defended the Iranian nuclear programme. These developments have led to concerns in the West that Turkey, the only Muslim Nato member and a candidate for membership in the European Union, may be turning away from its western orientation. But Turkish officials say their country remains opposed to a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. Ankara's main objective is to avoid new economic pressures on Tehran or a military confrontation because Turkey as a neighbour would also suffer, they claim.
"If we say we are against sanctions, we do not say that to favour Iran," Mr Davutoglu said, adding that it was easy to call for sanctions for countries that are not geographically close to Iran. "We would act the same way no matter which one of our neighbours would be confronted with that: Greece, Georgia, even Israel," Mr Davutoglu said. The plan, proposed by the IAEA, calls for stockpiling about 70 per cent of Iran's low-enriched uranium, which amounts to about 1,200 kilograms, in Turkey or another country.
The uranium would later to be turned into fuel rods by facilities in France or Russia; the fuel rods cannot be further enriched into weapons-grade material. In exchange, Iran would receive higher-enriched fuel rods for use in a medical nuclear reactor in the short term. That way, Iran could continue with its nuclear programme, while the West could be sure Iran does not have enough uranium that could be enriched to build nuclear weapons. Several Iranian officials have rejected the plan, but there has been no formal answer from Tehran yet.
There is also disagreement on whether Iran would have to ship its uranium abroad before receiving the fuel rods for the Tehran reactor. Turkey has no nuclear programme of its own, despite its stated ambition to build several nuclear reactors in the coming years, but Mr Davutoglu said that did not mean that Turkish authorities lacked the know-how to make sure the uranium from Iran would be safe.
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse