Iran to reopen nuclear plant as dispute escalatesIran threw down the gauntlet to the west yesterday, telling UN nuclear inspectors it was breaking UN seals at a nuclear plant to resume part of its uranium enrichment programme in breach of a pact with the EU. The enrichment programme could be used to arm nuclear warheads.
In a high-risk move that could shatter two years of negotiations with the EU, trigger an emergency meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna, and see Tehran referred for penalties to the UN security council, Iran delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency saying the seals at a uranium conversion plant near the town of Isfahan would be removed to start turning raw uranium into a gaseous form that can then be processed into nuclear fuel.
The move comes on the eve of the inauguration of a new president, the reputed hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose unexpected election is a cause for concern in both the EU and Washington.
Under an agreement last November with Britain, France and Germany - negotiating with Iran on behalf of the EU and with US backing - Tehran pledged to freeze all uranium enrichment activities pending the outcome of talks.
Later this week the EU troika is to present detailed proposals offering Iran security and military guarantees against attack as well as trade benefits and supplies of technology and nuclear fuel for a civil nuclear programme, provided Iran forfeits its right to enrich uranium. It was unclear why Tehran opted to jeopardise the potential breakthrough at the last minute.
Yesterday's calculated escalation of the dispute alarmed western diplomats and left the Europeans scrambling to decide whether to break off almost two years of delicate talks with Iran. "It will be very difficult not to respond to this," a European diplomat said. Another diplomat following the negotiations said: "It's part of the normal pattern of Iranian behaviour, stretch things out and then pull back at the last minute."
The angry letter to the IAEA from the Iranians accused the Europeans of orchestrating "prolonged and fruitless" negotiations and said the EU offer to be tabled this week would be "totally unacceptable".
The UN inspectors played for time, telling Iran that they would need a week to install monitoring equipment at the Isfahan plant before Iranian operations could resume. In Tehran last night, it was reported that the Iranians agreed not to a week's delay, but to a two-day wait. Iran maintains that the uranium conversion work at Isfahan does not constitute uranium enrichment, an argument dismissed by the Europeans on the grounds that the only purpose of the converted uranium gas is for later enrichment into fuel for nuclear power stations or into fissile material for nuclear warheads.
While diplomats and analysts ultimately expect the EU-Iran negotiations to fail, there was an air of panic yesterday that the talks could collapse sooner than expected. Ambassadors and senior officials in Vienna were cancelling and rescheduling holidays yesterday on the assumption that there would be an emergency IAEA meeting which could send the dispute to the UN security council.
The IAEA chief, Mohammed ElBaradei, appealed to Iran not to imperil the negotiations with the EU "at this critical stage".
For two years the Europeans have resisted US calls to take the row to the security council but have promised the Americans to end that resistance if the talks break down. The US and the Europeans are convinced Iran is embarked on a clandestine nuclear bomb project. Enriching uranium is the main route to the bomb.