Russia's minister of atomic energy said Iran will not start uranium enrichment

Russia's minister of atomic energy played down concerns Tuesday over Iranian threats to start uranium enrichment, saying Tehran would not have the capability to embark on the program, a possible pathway to nuclear arms, for more than a year.

Alexander Rumyantsev also said his country supported calls for Iran to forgo enrichment, which can manufacture nuclear fuel or the fissile core of nuclear warheads. But he said any such decision by Iran was voluntary, suggesting the U.N. Security Council had no authority to demand the move, according to the AP.

Rumyantsev spoke on the sidelines of a 139-nation International Atomic Energy Agency conference after last week's IAEA board decision to clear the path for Iran to be hauled before the Security Council as early as November, at the next regular board meeting.

The board adopted a resolution finding that Iran's past covert activities left it in noncompliance with provisions of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. But it deferred a decision on referral to give Tehran time to meet board demands, which included a call on Iran to end nuclear conversion - a precursor of enrichment _ and commit to freezing all enrichment plans.

On Tuesday, Iran threatened to resume uranium enrichment and block U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities unless the IAEA board _ and EU countries that drafted the resolution _ stepped back from its resolution.

"If the IAEA and European countries don't make up for their error, we will cancel all voluntary measures we have taken," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said.

Beyond the implicit warning about enrichment, Asefi also appeared to be saying his country would stop honoring the IAEA's so-called Additional Protocol allowing IAEA experts broad inspection rights.

Enrichment does not violate the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has accepted. But _ with world suspicions high in the wake of 18 years of nuclear secrecy on the part of Tehran _ the IAEA and most of its member nations want Iran to scrap enrichment plans as a confidence-building measure, something Tehran says it is not prepared to do.

Tehran plans to run 50,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium in the central city of Natanz. Iran says the Natanz facility is meant to meet the fuel requirements of the Bushehr nuclear reactor built with Russian help.

But Rumyantsev, an expert on Tehran's nuclear program, said Iran's only known enrichment facility _ a small pilot project at Natanz _ would take some time to reassemble and put into operation.

It "would take more than one year to turn it into a capacity for enrichment," he said of the facility at Natanz. "It's a big job."

He refused to commit himself on Russian backing of the Security Council threat, saying only that while Moscow "supports the resolution" where it refers to continuing cooperation between Tehran and the IAEA, "the resolution (also) contains a number of ambiguities and contesting options."

Russia has almost completed construction work on its US$800 million (Ђ596.3 million) contract to build the Bushehr nuclear reactor, a project that has caused concern for the United States. Washington fears the reactor could help Tehran develop nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear ambitions are aimed only at generating electricity.


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