After starting reactor, Iran fires Gulf missile

Posted in Iran | 28-Aug-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton and Michael Sla| Source: International Herald Tribune

A TV grab taken from Iran's state television shows the test firing of a new missile.
An increasingly defiant Iran, resisting pressure to halt its uranium enrichment activities by a Thursday deadline, inaugurated a heavy-water nuclear reactor Saturday and then, as if to punctuate its point, fired a long-range missile on Sunday from a submarine in the Gulf.

Washington, in its own diplomatic escalation, has increasingly dropped hints that the United States might organize tougher economic sanctions against Iran, independent of the United Nations, if the Security Council fails to do so.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the reactor near Arak, southwest of Tehran, a provocative gesture coming days before the deadline set by the Security Council for Iran to halt its enrichment work. But while vowing to pursue nuclear work, Ahmadinejad insisted that "we are not a threat for any country."

Nuclear experts say, however, that heavy-water facilities are more useful for weapons than civilian purposes, because they produce lots of plutonium, the preferred ingredient for missile warheads.

"Iran will continue its enrichment," its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was quoted as having told the Iranian news agency ISNA, Reuters reported from Tehran. "We will never stop it."

Iran seemed to be playing on the doubts that appear to be dividing the Security Council on whether to carry out the threatened sanctions. Russia and China, both permanent members of the council, supported the resolution that set the deadline. But since last Tuesday, when Iran sent a 21-page proposal to the five permanent members and Germany, leaving open the possibility of suspending enrichment once negotiations began, they have cooled to the sanctions talk.

Britain and France have also been less insistent about sanctions than has the United States.

Iran, according to political analysts in Tehran, appears to have concluded that the United States is too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to want to engage in another conflict in the region, and it believes that the perceived victory of Hezbollah in its war with Israel has strengthened Iran's political capital in the region. Iran is a supporter of Hezbollah.

The Security Council will base its next move partly on a report Thursday from the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Iranian nuclear program. It appears virtually certain that the agency will conclude that nuclear enrichment activity is continuing, according to diplomats quoted by Reuters.

One senior diplomat said that the focus on Iran's refusing to halt enrichment should not distract attention from what he said was Iran's "thoughtful counterproposal that did not rule out suspension as part of negotiations." This, he said, was "as positive as anyone could have hoped."

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, is scheduled to visit Tehran on Saturday, two days after the deadline.

John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly has conferred with countries that include Britain and Japan on the possibility that an independent coalition of countries could impose economic sanctions if the Security Council fails to do so.

The United States already subjects Iran to some trade and financial constraints.

"You don't need Security Council authority to impose sanctions, just as we have," Bolton told The Los Angeles Times, in an interview.

France has termed the Iranian response "not satisfactory," but Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said that France wanted to avoid moving toward a "clash of civilizations."

"The worst thing would be to escalate into a confrontation with Iran on the one hand - and the Muslim world with Iran - and the West," he told a French radio interviewer. "That would be the clash of civilizations that France today is practically alone in trying to avoid."

Even as the Bush administration explores independent sanctions, some in Washington have expressed doubts that the United States, with its heavy military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its own political capital in the region damaged, has many attractive options.

"It's a really bad situation," Senator Joseph Biden said Sunday on Fox Television. Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said that the United States should continue pressing other countries to support sanctions, but that if that effort failed, there was little the United States could do.

"We'll need to come up with a serious containment policy for the region," he said.

The details of the Iranian response presented Tuesday were not released. But Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the Iranian daily newspaper Kayhan, said that the Iranian document noted 50 "ambiguities" in the incentives package offered to Iran in exchange for halting its nuclear activities. These would require clarification, said Shariatmadari, who was appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Iranian missile fired Sunday came from a submarine involved in military exercises in the Gulf, the Iranian state television reported, Reuters said. While the missile was described as a long-range radar-evading Sagheb or Thaqeb air-defense missile, a brief video clip shown on television showed it emerging from the water before hitting a target on the surface less than a short distance away, The Associated Press reported.

Iran conducted war exercises in the Gulf in April as well. Analysts said those seemed to send the message that Iran could disrupt vital oil shipping lanes if outside powers pressed it too hard.

Brian Knowlton of the International Herald Tribune reported from Washington. Michael Slackman of The New York Times reported from Tehran.