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UN nuclear watchdog accuses Iran over nuclear weapons

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has radically increased pressure on Iran by publicly describing concerns over atomic weapons for the first time.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it feared that Tehran could be working on "a nuclear payload for a missile" in its bluntest report yet on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.

The White House responded to the report by threatening “consequences” if Iran failed to co-operate with nuclear inspectors.

In the IAEA’s first report on Iran under its new director-general Yukiya Amano, tougher language appeared to signal a sea-change in the attitude towards Tehran.

Mr Amano was expected to be more confrontational than his predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, who had refused to acknowledge worries about military intentions in public before his retirement on December 1.

The report, published last night, said: “The information available to the agency is extensive... broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organisations involved.

“Altogether this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

The development comes little more than two months after The Times revealed that Iran was working on testing a key final component of a nuclear bomb.

While there was no direct new evidence of weapons production in the report, the IAEA said scientists at the Natanz nuclear facility had already begun refining uranium to 20 per cent, in a clear breach of UN obligations.

Last week, Iran publicly announced a start to higher-scale enrichment, saying it was frustrated at the collapse of an IAEA-backed plan for foreign governments to provide it with fuel rods for nuclear medicine made from high-enriched uranium.

The IAEA report complained that Iran had started the process already by feeding low-enriched uranium (LEU) into centrifuges for refinement before inspectors could get to the facility.

“We have expressed our dissatisfaction,” said a senior official close to the IAEA. “It is of paramount importance to have this information in a timely way to make sure there are no undeclared activities or facilities in Iran.”

The report also said Iran increased its LEU stockpile by some 250 kg to 2,060 kg since November - enough for one or two nuclear bombs if enriched to 90 per cent purity.

“The fact that they have increased the level of non-cooperation indicates to me that unless we can mount the international pressure to stop it, this program is heading more and more in the direction of seeking a weapons capability,” an IAEA official said.

The United States is already leading a push for the UN Security Council to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran because of suspicions it may be developing nuclear weapons. Russia has recently declared its support for the move, although it had previously been opposed to expanding sanctions.

“We always said that if Iran failed to live up to those international obligations, that there would be consequences,” Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman said.

Tehran responded to the report by claiming that its nuclear program is meant only to yield electricity or radioisotopes for agriculture or medicine.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, said: “The IAEA’s new report confirmed Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities and the country’s non-deviation towards military purposes.”