Iran defies UN by continuing enrichment

Posted in Iran , UN | 01-Sep-06 | Author: Michael Slackman and Brian Kno| Source: International Herald Tribune

Passers-by perused headlines in the morning newspapers Thursday in Tehran as Iran ignored a deadline on its uranium-enrichment program.
TEHRAN Iran remained defiant Thursday, ignoring a deadline set by the United Nations Security Council to suspend enrichment of uranium or face the threat of economic and political sanctions, which could choke its access to international banks and block the ability of its officials to travel abroad.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in a confidential report Thursday that Iran was enriching small amounts of uranium, according to wire service accounts. But the report, they said, stated that Iran had limited inspectors' access to certain facilities, leaving them unable to verify Iran's assertion that it is pursuing peaceful nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons.

John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the report described actions by Iran that were "simply inexplicable" unless their real objective was the construction of nuclear weapons. Bolton also said that unanimity was not necessary at the Security Council in order to impose punitive sanctions.

In northwestern Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a large crowd that his government would not be cowed by what he called "arrogant powers" to halt its nuclear work.

"The Iranian nation will not accept for one moment any bullying, invasion and violation of its rights," he said in the town of Orumiyeh, The Associated Press reported.

Mohammed Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said that although Iran disagreed with parts of the report, the document demonstrated that "America's propaganda and politically motivated claims over Iran's nuclear program are baseless and based on American officials' hallucinations," the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported.

Iranian leaders have been adamant about pursuing enrichment, making it a matter of national pride from which any retreat would have been difficult.

While Bolton and other U.S. officials seized on the report to bolster their argument for sanctions without further delay, Europeans continued to speak of negotiating with Tehran.

President George W. Bush said during a security-centered speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, that it was not too late for Iran to change course and accept the package of incentives that the United States and five other powers offered it. Nor did he close the door to diplomacy. But if Iran refuses to budge, he said, "there must be consequences for Iran's defiance, and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon."

Separately, the under secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, said that Iranians would now "have to calculate the cost of isolation."

"This is not going to be a pleasant time for them," he told CNN.

The Security Council is likely to take the matter up by mid-month.

Deadline-day, however, appeared less like a climactic conclusion to a years- long conflict than another step on a road that has seen Iran, Western Europe and the United States battling over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Even before the deadline struck, the United States, Britain, France and Germany were working to build consensus for saddling Iran with sanctions.

At the same time, Iranian officials have worked feverishly to try to split the European coalition and to curry support from Russia and China, which have substantial economic and energy interests in Iran.

In their report, IAEA inspectors said that they were troubled by finding some unexplained new traces of highly enriched uranium on containers in a waste storage facility, CNN reported. Such traces could conceivably have been on nuclear equipment when it was imported from countries like Pakistan.

And inspectors found no "concrete proof" that the Iranian nuclear program was military in nature and not purely civilian, Agence France-Presse reported a senior official close to the agency as saying. If so, that would likely deepen the split between the United States, Britain and France, which favor economic sanctions in the face of Iranian defiance, and Russia and China, which support a continuation of negotiations.

China's fast-growing economy is heavily dependent on Iranian oil. Iran is also one of Europe's biggest suppliers. Crude oil futures fell slightly in London on speculation that the Security Council would not act quickly, according to analysts cited by Bloomberg News.

Bolton, asked about persuading Russia and China to support sanctions, noted that their foreign ministers had agreed two months ago "that if Iran did not fully suspend its uranium enrichment activities, they would support coming to the council to seek economic sanctions."

He said he assumed that they "would live up to the commitment that their governments have made."

The list of sanctions assembled by the United States, Britain, France and Germany would start with curbs on imports of nuclear-related equipment and material, and might eventually include travel restrictions on Iranian leaders and limits on Iran's access to global financial markets, according to diplomats involved in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity. The idea would be to start with modest steps most likely to garner Russian and Chinese support.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called the Iranian stance "very regrettable," and said the international community could not ignore it.

"We have made Iran a very, very good offer," she said Thursday. But she also said that Iran's interlocutors would not "slam the door shut" on further talks.

And Javier Solana, the European foreign policy chief, agreed by telephone to meet soon with Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, to explore the Iranian stance, Solana's office said.

He is to meet Friday with European foreign ministers in Finland to weigh a response to Iran.

Iran has sent mixed signals. It suggested on Aug. 22, in a reply to the incentives package offered by the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany, that it was open to negotiations, an openness that appears to have lessened Russian and Chinese support for sanctions.

But last weekend, Iran launched a heavy-water nuclear production plant, while pressing ahead with low-level enrichment work.

The IAEA report, according to The Associated Press, did not stipulate that Iran was enriching uranium on Thursday, the day of the deadline for it to halt such activity. It said only that Iran had begun work on a new batch of uranium on Aug. 24.

But a senior official close to the agency said that centrifuges were processing uranium gas for enrichment as late as Tuesday, the last day agency inspectors reported on the program. The Thursday deadline appeared flexible. Diplomats said it seemed certain that talk of sanctions would be dropped if Iran halted enrichment after that date.

Michael Slackman of The New York Times reported from Tehran and Brian Knowlton of the International Herald Tribune from Washington. Nazila Fathi of The Times contributed reporting from Tehran.