Iran risks showdown as work at atomic site resumes

Posted in Iran | 09-Aug-05 | Author: Ian Traynor and Ewen MacAskill| Source: Guardian (UK)

Technicians of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization in a control room supervise resumption of activities at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan, 420 km (261 miles) south of Tehran August 8, 2005.
Iran risked the collapse of almost two years of negotiations with Britain, France and Germany over its suspect nuclear programme when it yesterday restarted work at a key atomic site.

Its action brought closer the prospect of a showdown with the US, which wants to see Iran referred to the UN security council and economic sanctions imposed.

The restarting of uranium conversion in the southern city of Isfahan was criticised by the Foreign Office, which described events yesterday as being of deep concern.

The Iranian move came in defiance of warnings from the EU and the US as well as appeals from Dr Mohammed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and was timed to pre-empt an emergency meeting of the IAEA board in Vienna today to discuss the Iranian crisis.

One European diplomat involved said Iran was in clear breach of the agreement it reached with the European trio in Paris in November. France's foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said: "It's a new situation that only makes us increase our doubts over the aims of the Iranian programme."

Iran combined the restart of work at the atomic site with a formal rejection of conciliatory proposals put forward by the European trio last week.

The Iranian step is effectively the first substantive act by the new regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, viewed as an anti-western hardliner.

The resumption of activities in Isfahan coincided with reports in Tehran that the president had reshuffled his team for negotiations on the nuclear dispute, replacing the chief negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, seen as moderate and pragmatic, with Ali Larijani, viewed as conservative and less interested in compromise.

The IAEA had been hoping to stall the Isfahan operation for several days and was against calling today's emergency meeting. Britain, France and Germany pushed for the meeting.

Two agency inspectors were at the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan installing video equipment yesterday morning "when the Iranians rushed in and resumed operations", said an informed diplomat.

The IAEA, looking for room for manoeuvre, stressed that Iran had not yet moved on to the next stage of the process and that seals remained in place.

The US claims Iran is intent on covertly creating the technology needed to build a nuclear bomb. Iran denies the charge.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday: "We regret Iran's decision to reject the European Three's proposals and are deeply concerned about reports that Iran has also decided to restart the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan. We will now urgently discuss the next steps in the IAEA board of governors."

He added: "We asked Iran to study our ideas carefully and suggested meetings with some officials on August 31 and ministers in September to consider them. Iran's decision to reject them without discussion is damaging."

Senior officials in Tehran dismissed the EU offer, tabled last week, as "insulting and demeaning".

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, brushed aside the prospect of economic sanctions. "We are not concerned and are ready for everything," he said, adding that threats would not be effective.

"What interests us is cooperation. We advise Europe to withdraw its threats."

With a showdown between the US and Iran looming two years ago, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany flew to Tehran in October 2003 and secured an agreement that Iran would suspend its uranium enrichment programme.

Iran insists it is entitled under international law to enrich uranium for a civil nuclear programme. The same technology and materials are used to produce bomb-grade fissile material. The Americans, and increasingly the Europeans, are convinced that is the true Iranian aim, although US intelligence recently scaled back its predictions of when Tehran might master the science and engineering involved in manufacturing a nuclear bomb.

Yesterday's moves put the onus on the Europeans to respond. In advance, they had already drafted a weak resolution for today's IAEA meeting, giving the Iranians another chance before the Europeans would support taking the dispute to the UN security council in New York which could opt for punitive sanctions against Iran.

The European diplomats accepted that the resolution had been overtaken by events and were busy last night redrafting the resolution.

It is far from clear that the Europeans can muster enough support in the 35-strong IAEA board for a referral to the security council.