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October 26, 2009

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UN nuclear watchdog inspects Iranian enrichment facility

UNITED Nations inspectors yesterday got their first look inside a once-secret uranium enrichment facility that has raised Western suspicions about the extent of Iran's nuclear program.

The Iranian Mehr news agency reported the four-member team visited the heavily protected facility, carved into a mountainside south of Tehran.

The tour marked the first independent examination of the site, but no results were expected until after the inspectors leave Iran later this week.

The review also coincides with the countdown to Iran's expected decision on whether to accept a UN-brokered deal to process its nuclear fuel abroad.

The disclosure last month of Iran's second enrichment facility raised international concern.

But Iran said it reported the site's existence voluntarily to the UN's nuclear watchdog to prevent the United States and its allies presenting the site as evidence that Iran was developing its nuclear program in secret.

Iran also has promised to respond later this week on UN-drafted proposal to have its nuclear fuel processed outside the country. Iran claims it only seeks peaceful reactors for research and energy.

Iran has not given its official answer on the proposed nuclear deal - discussed last week after talks in Vienna with the US, France and Russia - but there are increasing doubts that Iran's leadership will come on board.

Last Saturday, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani claimed the West was trying to "cheat" Iran under the deal that would ship most of Iran's uranium to Russia for reactor-ready enrichment.

Larijani did not specifically address the fuel needs for Iran's planned Russian-built full-scale reactor, but Russia is required to provide fuel as part of agreement to build it for Iran in the southern city of Bushehr. The reactor is nearly operational.

Rejection of the UN deal would force the US and its allies to either return to talks or step up demands for greater economic sanctions.

Iranian lawmakers said the visit by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors was evidence that Iran is open about its nuclear activities.

"IAEA inspectors' visit to Fordo shows that Iran's nuclear activities are transparent and peaceful," the official IRNA news agency quoted lawmaker Hasan Ebrahimi as saying.

The Fordo uranium enrichment site, about 30 kilometers north of Qom, is protected by military installations including missile silos and anti-aircraft batteries, Iranian officials said.

Iran says the facility won't be operational for another 18 months.

The inspectors are expected to compare Iran's engineering plans with the actual layout of the plant, interview employees and take environmental samples to check for the presence of nuclear materials.


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