Iran rejects EU call to abandon uranium projectIran yesterday flatly rejected demands to abandon its uranium enrichment programme, as a leading hawk in the Bush administration warned that America would act to prevent Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons.
The escalation came as France, Germany and Britain joined forces with Washington for the first time to demand a halt to Iran's fuel enrichment work, signalling possible sanctions unless the Islamic republic pledges to abandon the activity by November.
On the eve of an important board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, starting in Vienna today, Britain, France, and Germany have drafted a board resolution on Iran demanding concrete action and answers by November. The draft resolution also asks the IAEA to deliver a final verdict on Iran's nuclear programme.
The draft threatens "probable further steps", which means referring the country to the UN security council for reprimand and penalties if Tehran fails to persuade the IAEA that it is not working on a covert nuclear weapons programme.
Iran responded by rejecting the key demand contained in the European draft - that its ambitious uranium enrichment programme be ditched. The Washington hawk dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue, meanwhile, said the US would act, if need be, to stop Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons.
John Bolton, the Republican "neo-con" who is in charge of nuclear counter-proliferation at the US state department, told journalists in Jerusalem: "We are determined that they [Iran] are not going to achieve a nuclear weapons capability".
Last Friday in Geneva, Mr Bolton helped to draft the EU troika's resolution, which sees a narrowing of transatlantic differences over how to deal with Iran.
During 18 months of IAEA deliberations on and investigation of the Iranian nuclear conundrum, Washington has been pressing for tough action against Tehran, while the European trio preferred negotiations with the Islamic republic.
The EU draft confirms that European patience with Iran has run out and the window for negotiations is closing.
A British official said last week that the crunch point for deciding how to act on Iran would arrive in November, when the next IAEA board meeting is scheduled, soon after the US election.
While there are a host of questions regularly being raised about Iran's 20-year-old nuclear programme, which was largely unknown until two years ago, the fundamental aim of the Europeans and the Americans is to close down the extensive programme for enriching uranium, an industrial process that would give Iran the ability to produce bomb-grade nuclear fuel.
Iran insists that its programme is peaceful. Under its international treaty commitments, it is entitled to develop a homegrown nuclear fuel cycle, from mining uranium ore to processing it into uranium hexafluoride gas, to feeding the gas into cascades of thousands of centrifuges, then spinning the gas to low levels of enrichment to enable its use for electricity generation in nuclear power plants.
The same technology, however, can be used to enrich the uranium to much higher levels for use in nuclear warheads.
Because of this, Iran needs to declare its activities to the IAEA, and it failed to do so until it was found out 18 months ago.
Tehran yesterday rejected the central demand of the European draft resolution - to abandon its uranium enrichment programme - and declared that it had already perfected the technology.