"It's not just that Iran is speeding up its nuclear plans," an administration official told the newspaper. "It's also that we've only recently learned some things about their program that have been going on for two years. There's also a lot of hammering from the Israelis for us to take this problem seriously."
United Press International first reported the U.S. demand for a nuclear ruling against Iran last Thursday. UPI learned that in a closed door meeting of IAEA's board of governors on March 17, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Brill formally requested that IAEA's Director General Mohammed ElBaradei submit a report by June 16 on whether Iran's nuclear power program continues to be intended only for peaceful purposes.
The IAEA is to meet on the matter next month. But of greatest concern is the recent disclosure that Iran has built a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz in central Iran, a site not known to nuclear experts until last year.
The only countries ever found in violation of the treaty are Iraq and North Korea. If a similar determination were made in the case of Iran, U.S. officials would expect at least a meeting of the U.N. Security Council similar to the one held last month to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
U.S. intelligence agencies have compiled new evidence in the past year that says Iran is closer to developing nuclear weapons than earlier thought. Some U.S. analysts and outside experts predict that Tehran will be able to produce weapons-grade material on a regular basis by late 2005.
"For a long time, the U.S. government has had intelligence indicating that Iran indeed is seeking nuclear weapons," President Clinton's Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn told UPI last week week. "This would be the first time the international organization charged with monitoring Iran's performance would raise questions about Iran's intentions."
John Wolf, the present assistant secretary of State for Nonproliferation also met with ElBaradei last Wednesday in Geneva to press the case against Iran.
"Despite professions of transparency and peaceful intent, Iran is going down the same path of denial and deception that handicapped international inspections in North Korea and Iraq," he said Monday to a gathering of diplomats in Geneva.
Earlier in April, Undersecretary of State John Bolton met with ElBaradei to push for a tough assessment of Iran's nuclear program.
"We hope the (IAEA) report will be as hard hitting and thorough as possible," one senior State Department official told UPI Monday.
The crux of the argument against Iran is rooted in newly confirmed information that in the mid-1990s China has shipped uranium hexaflouride, the feedstock and precursor for enriching weapons grade uranium, to Iran. Earlier this year, the People's Republic formally shared this information with the IAEA, confirming a long-held assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies. While U.S. intelligence believes this material was used for a test centrifuge, the item is nonetheless considered "safeguard material" by the IAEA requiring member states to report it. Iran has never reported that it received the material.
But the case against Iran also cuts to the heart of the IAEA's recent inspections in the country. In late February, Iran allowed IAEA inspectors to assess a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, a small, nondescript farming town near the city of Isfahan. Inspectors have returned for further work since then as well.
The facility currently has 160 working centrifuges. But current construction should make it possible to build thousands more underground. News of this expansion was first made public by an Iranian opposition group financially supported by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, and known as the National Council for Resistance. In April, coalition forces in the Iraq war bombed the headquarters of a militia group affiliated with it.
In the course of a recent IAEA inspection, Tehran finally agreed to give ElBaradei's organization fair warning of the construction of additional nuclear facilities in the country. But the Iranians also did not allow inspectors to inspect all of the rooms in a site outside Tehran run by the Kala Electric Co., and believed to be a test facility for enriching uranium.
Indeed, when pressed by inspectors, Iranian officials did not admit to enriching any uranium at all, a claim many outside experts find difficult to believe in light of the Kala facility and the progress of the Natanz centrifuge project. If the Iranians admit to enrichment activities, then this alone would be another violation of the nonproliferation treaty.
U.S. intelligence agencies now believe Iran has been operating a clandestine facility in Arak for producing heavy water, a technique to make weapons grade material from naturally occurring uranium stocks, which Iran's president, Mohammed Khatami, said in February that his government had begun mining in the country.
Sources close to the IAEA told UPI they were aware of this facility and planned to further analyze these claims.
Despite the new evidence, ElBaradei has privately resisted calls to find the Iranians in violation of their obligations under the nonproliferation treaty, citing the progress of his inspections teams, according to three U.S. officials who have seen the diplomatic traffic and one source close to the IAEA.
"We are in the middle of an inspection and we are doing a thorough analysis and we couldn't at this point make any judgment about Iran's program until that analysis is finished," Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the IAEA, told UPI by telephone from Vienna last Wednesday.
(With reporting by UPI State Department Correspondent Eli J. Lake)