VIENNA, Austria (AP) – Iran is spending the last few days before it must stop all work related to uranium enrichment converting tons of ore into a dual-use gas that could then be processed to make nuclear weapons, diplomats said Friday.

Iran recently started producing uranium hexafluoride at its gas processing facilities in Isfahan, the diplomats told The Associated Press. When introduced into centrifuges and spun, the substance can be enriched to low levels for use as fuel to generate electricity or to levels high enough to make weapons-grade uranium that forms the core of nuclear warheads.

A diplomat familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency – the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency – said the Iranians apparently were in the process of converting 22 tons of uranium into gas before Monday’s deadline. Iran was doing this either as a precursor to producing uranium hexafluoride or actually producing it.

Iran is not believed to have enriched substantive amounts of uranium hexafluoride.

Iran has insisted it wants to produce uranium hexafluoride for enrichment to generate electricity. The United States – which once labeled Iran part of an “axis of evil” with North Korea and prewar Iraq – believes Iran is trying to make atomic bombs.

On Friday, Iran dismissed as “baseless” Secretary of State Colin Powell’s claims that he had seen intelligence indicating that Iran “had been actively working on delivery systems” for a nuclear weapon.

Iran last week agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and all related activities in a deal worked out with Britain, France, Germany and the European Union. The deal, which takes effect Monday, prohibits Iran from all uranium gas processing activities.

But the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tehran was exploiting the window until Monday to produce uranium hexafluoride at its Isfahan plant in central Iran.

Asked about quantities, one diplomat said “it’s not little,” but he declined to elaborate.

Iran has huge reserves of raw uranium and has announced plans to extract more than 40 tons a year.

That amount, converted to uranium hexafluoride and repeatedly spun in centrifuges, theoretically could yield more than 200 pounds of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, enough for about five crude nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials say the Isfahan plant can convert more than 300 tons of uranium ore a year.

Iran is not prohibited from making uranium hexafluoride until the deal takes force. But its decision to carry out uranium processing right up to the freeze deadline was expected to disappoint the Europeans – and give the United States ammunition in its push to have the U.N. Security Council examine Tehran’s nuclear activities.

Washington says Iran wants to enrich uranium to make weapons. Tehran says it is interested only in low-grade enriched uranium for nuclear power.

Iran announced suspension of enrichment last week, and the agency said it would police that commitment starting next week, ahead of the Nov. 25 IAEA board meeting.

Although the deal commits Iran to suspension only while a comprehensive aid agreement with the EU is finalized, the pledge reduced Washington’s hopes of having the IAEA board refer Iran to the Security Council when the board meets Thursday.

By opting to freeze – and not scrap – the program, Tehran has not dropped plans to run 50,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium for what it says will be the fuel requirements of a nuclear reactor to be finished next year.

It currently possesses less than 1,000 centrifuges. But even with 1,500 centrifuges, experts say, Iran would be able to make enough weapons-grade uranium for about a bomb a year.

Iran, meanwhile, dismissed Powell’s remarks about its nuclear program as “baseless,” adding that he should review his intelligence sources.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi was reacting to Powell’s comments on claims by the Iranian dissident group, the National Council for Resistance in Iran, which alleged that Tehran was secretly running a program intended to produce nuclear weapons by next year.

Powell said Wednesday he had seen intelligence that partially confirmed the claim, including some indicating that Iran “had been actively working on delivery systems” for a nuclear weapon.

“There is no place for weapons of mass destruction in Iran”s defense doctrine,” Asefi said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Asefi suggested that U.S. officials “reconsider their intelligence sources.”

On Thursday, Asefi dismissed the claims of the Iranian dissident group, which the United States and the European Union consider to be a terrorist organization.



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