UN nuclear experts inspected yesterday a uranium enrichment site whose existence was announced by Iran last month, the semi-official Mers news agency said.
Tehran’s secrecy about the site, which diplomats say was detected by western intelligence three years ago, has raised fears it is running a covert program to develop nuclear bombs.
Iran which says it is seeking only to generate electricity, agreed to open up the plant to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at talks with six world powers on October 1.
"The inspectors visited the facility in central Iran. They are expected to visit the site again," Mehr news agency reported, without giving a source. There was no immediate confirmation from the IAEA.
The IAEA inspectors arrived in Iran early on Sunday to examine the site, under construction 160 km (100 miles) south of Tehran. Their stay in Iran is likely to last several days.
It is Iran’s second site for enriching uranium, which can be used to fuel power plants or to provide material for bombs.
In talks with world powers, Iran also promised to send abroad much of its enriched uranium reserve for processing into fuel for a reactor that makes radio-isotopes for medical care.
World powers regard both steps as tests of Iran’s stated intent to use enriched uranium only for civilian purposes and a basis for follow-up talks on curbing enrichment itself, which would bring Iran trade and technology rewards in return.
The proposal that Iran send enriched uranium abroad is also seen as a way of reducing its stockpile below the threshold needed to produce fissile material for a bomb.
But the tentative deal stumbled last week when Iran ignored a UN deadline for giving its response to the proposal, with officials saying it would give an answer only next week.
Diplomats say they fear Iran may be buying time to blunt Western pressure for harsher international sanctions while it presses on with nuclear research.
Influential lawmakers have also criticized the proposal, in comments echoed by an Iranian diplomat yesterday.
Abolfazl Zorehvand, a former ambassador to Italy, said the plan amounted to a kind of suspension of Iran’s enrichment program a demand the Islamic state has repeatedly rejected.
"If we want to enrich this amount again it would take at least 18 months. During these 18 months they will have time to pressure Iran again and push us in the direction they want to," the official IRNA news agency quoted Zorehvand as saying.
"These signals from the West create mistrust," he said.
A member of parliament’s foreign affairs and national security commission made clear he opposed the draft agreement.
"I’m against accepting the deal. It is not in Iran’s interest," ISNA news agency quoted MP Mohammad Karamirad as saying.
Iran has said the centrifuge plant being built in a military compound buried inside a mountain near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom would refine uranium for civilian nuclear energy.
Western diplomats and analysts say the site’s capacity appears too small to fuel a nuclear power station but enough to yield fissile material for one or two nuclear warheads a year.
They also say Iran only announced the existence of the site because western intelligence agencies had already detected it.
The four-strong team from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards division led by Herman Nackaerts, who oversees the Middle East region including Iran, declined comment to reporters in Vienna before leaving for Tehran.
The inspectors intend to compare engineering designs to be provided by Iran with the actual look of the facility, interview scientists and other employees, and take environmental samples to verify the site has no illicit military dimension.
A senior lawmaker said Iran, with the UN inspections, sent a message of "confidence-building, good interaction and transparency" and it would be "good that the westerners receive this message correctly," IRNA news agency reported.
MP Hassan Sobhaninia added: "The inspectors can see for themselves (the) new facilities and like always before become aware of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities."