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Iran Nuke Program Well Known

The U.N.'s nuclear agency has been aware of Iran's plan to mine and process uranium for several years, an agency official said Monday.

Iran's President Mohammad Khatami said Sunday that researchers had discovered uranium reserves in central Iran near Yazd. He also said facilities had been established in nearby Isfahan and Kashan where the uranium would be processed to produce electricity.

Khatami said the country was "determined to make use of advanced nuclear technology for peaceful purposes."

Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said the agency had long been aware of Iran's search for uranium at the site.

"This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project for several years now," Fleming said.

"In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992," Fleming said. "And the Iranians announced to us officially in September their plans to develop an ambitious nuclear power program that would include the entire nuclear fuel cycle."

President Bush said last year that Iran, along with North Korea, forms part of an "axis of evil." Washington has long been suspicious of Iran's nuclear program, accusing Tehran of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and of sponsoring terrorism. Iran rejects those charges.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, and his inspection team are scheduled to verify the country's nuclear facilities in a visit scheduled for Feb. 25.

U.S. officials have said that Iran's lack of fissile material — either enriched uranium or plutonium — was a key stumbling block for its goals of either producing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

A Central Intelligence Agency report on countries seeking weapons of mass destruction in late 2001 said Iran was trying to establish supply agreements with Russia, North Korea and China to make up for its lack of domestic uranium resources.

"Iran has attempted to use its civilian nuclear energy program, which is quite modest in scope, to justify its efforts to establish domestically or otherwise acquire assorted nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities," the report read.

"Such capabilities, however, are well suited to support fissile material production for a weapons program, and we believe it is this objective that drives Iran's efforts to acquire relevant facilities," it continued.

The State Department has contended that Iran wastes more energy by flaring off the gas produced by its oil operations than its current nuclear program could produce, suggesting that civilian power production is not the true motivation.