LONDON – Intelligence suggests Iran worked on testing a key atomic bomb component as recently as 2007, diplomats said on Monday, a finding which if proven would clash with Iran's assertion its nuclear work is for civilian use.
The diplomats commented on a Times of London report about what it called a confidential Iranian technical document describing a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator, the part of a nuclear warhead that sets off an explosion.
The Times, diplomats and analysts reached by Reuters said such a device had no conventional military or civilian use.
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the semi-official Fars news agency the report was "baseless ... Such statements are not worthy of attention. These reports ... are intended to put political and psychological pressure on Iran."
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Iran, the world's No. 5 crude oil exporter, says its uranium enrichment program is aimed at generating electricity so that it can export more gas and oil. The West believes Iran wants bombs from enrichment because of its record of nuclear secrecy.
A senior diplomat familiar with the gist of the Times report said the document, obtained by intelligence services, had been passed on to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which has been probing intelligence allegations of Iranian attempts to "weaponize" enrichment for five years.
A senior International Atomic Energy Agency official declined comment "at this stage."
But the information would fall into the category of what senior IAEA officials have told Reuters are regular intelligence updates on Iran they receive from certain member states, mainly the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Israel.
The intelligence has not been authenticated but the IAEA has judged it consistent and compelling. Iran has dismissed the material as fabrications but the IAEA says Tehran must provide evidence to back up its position. Iran has ignored the appeals.
The IAEA maintains a running internal analysis of the intelligence, which indicates Iran has coordinated efforts to process uranium, test explosives at high altitude and revamp a ballistic missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.
Neutron initiator development has been part of such activity, according to some of the intelligence leaked earlier to news media, but covering a previous period up to 2003.
"This latest document (about neutron initiators) is in the Farsi language and appears to have been written in 2007," the senior diplomat said. "It is in IAEA hands for further study."
NEW U.S. INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE DUE
The last U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran, released two years ago, assessed that Tehran stopped nuclear weapons research in 2003 and Washington was fairly confident it had not resumed.
But this assessment has never been accepted by Britain, France, Germany and Israel, which believe Iran continued bomb research beyond 2003, or resumed it after an interruption.
An updated U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran is being worked on and is due for completion soon, diplomats say.
Mark Fitzpatrick, chief proliferation analyst at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Reuters that, as described, the Iranian document "sounds very much like the elements of a nuclear weapons design."
"The implications are very serious because it means that Iran is marching closer to producing a nuclear weapon. And I don't think Israel will let that happen."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said concern about Iran's nuclear intentions had been heightened by Tehran's recent announcement that it needed more nuclear enrichment facilities, which "should raise deep concerns among all people."
Israel, assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence and points to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.
That has raised concerns that Israel could ultimately carry out a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.
Tehran is determined to press ahead with its uranium enrichment program.
The IAEA's 35-nation board of governors voted last month to rebuke Iran for building a second enrichment plant in secret, near Qom.
Iran already had a larger underground enrichment facility at Natanz, declared to the IAEA in 2003 after Iranian opposition exiles blew the whistle on the plant.
Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel nuclear power plants. High-enriched uranium provides material for bombs.
Fitzpatrick said that if Iran's nuclear program could be plausibly justified as being for civilian purposes, it would be hard to justify military action to Western public opinion.
"But if evidence clearly shows unmistakable signs of ongoing weapons development work, then it's a new situation," he said.
A planned meeting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany on Iran's nuclear program will not take place this year, but representatives may still speak by phone, the U.S. State Department said.
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