Nuclear Agency Praises Iran

Posted in Iran | 30-Nov-04 | Author: Dafna Linzer| Source: Washington Post

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei (R) speaks with Iranian delegate Sirus Naseri before the U.N. nuclear watchdog meets to discuss a resolution on Iran's nuclear program.

IAEA Supports Arms Pact, Won't Seek Sanctions

The International Atomic Energy Agency praised Iran yesterday for suspending its uranium-enrichment work and removed an immediate threat of sanctions against the Islamic republic, which built its program in secret over 18 years.

The resolution endorses an agreement Iran struck with Britain, France and Germany two weeks ago to suspend its nuclear activity in exchange for assurances that it will not be referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

The European trio began negotiating with Iran a year ago in the hope of slowing its nuclear advances and convincing Washington the issue could be solved through diplomacy. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program was for producing energy, but others have suspected that it could be diverted to making weapons.

The passage of the resolution marked a new chapter for the Islamic republic, despite the questions about its nuclear ambitions, and made it clear there was little international support for the Bush administration's drive to ratchet up diplomatic pressure against Iran.

The Bush administration did not block the IAEA resolution but criticized it afterward and said for the first time that it is willing to take Iran to the Security Council on its own.

Meanwhile, Iran's leaders claimed the resolution as a diplomatic victory, while U.S. officials expressed disappointment the international community did not take a harder line.

Diplomats and nuclear experts said the resolution dramatically alters the way Iran will now be judged by the international community and could make it easier for the United States to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council if it violates the suspension, officials and nuclear experts said.

"This is really a win-win situation for the administration," said Robert Einhorn, who was assistant secretary for nonproliferation policy at the State Department from November 1999 to August 2001.

"Iran's nuclear progress is impeded as long as it keeps up the suspension, and if they are seen as breaking the pledge, the administration can claim that as a way to take it to the council," Einhorn said.

Iran is legally entitled to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear power reactors, but the same process can be used to make the key ingredient of an atomic bomb. The Tehran government is agreeing -- for the moment -- to do neither. But it is also preserving the capacity to reverse that decision at will.

U.S. policymakers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they would now turn their attention to negotiations Iran will hold with Britain, France and Germany. The European countries want the talks to produce a commitment from Iran to give up its nuclear programs. But Iranian officials say they are determined to hold on to their right to develop a nuclear program that could produce a stable energy source.

The White House, convinced that Iran's true intention is to build nuclear weapons, has been skeptical of the new diplomatic track that led to Iran's current suspension deal. But it is taking a wait-and-see approach, U.S. officials said, convinced the negotiations will fall apart within months.

The agreement was negotiated over U.S. objections, and the Bush administration has taken the role of bystander, neither participating in nor supporting the initiative.

For two years, the White House has pushed for tougher diplomatic moves against a country that President Bush once said was a member of an "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Iraq.

But most members of the IAEA board, wary of the faulty intelligence that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, have been reluctant to report Iran to U.N. headquarters without proof of a nuclear weapons program there.

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei told the board yesterday that Iran's suspension is in place and that he has not found any evidence of a weapons program. But last week, ElBaradei said Iran suffers from a "confidence deficit" and needs to work harder to answer questions about its past nuclear activities and win the world's trust.

Under the terms of the new resolution, ElBaradei's inspectors will now monitor the suspension and are to report any violation immediately to the agency's board.

The Bush administration had sought a tough trigger in the resolution that would automatically send Iran to the Security Council if ElBaradei recorded a violation. The current wording would require the IAEA board to meet first to discuss the issue, but U.S. officials made it clear yesterday that they would use the opportunity to report Iran on their own if the board was not willing to do so.

"We have put in place, we think, a mechanism in this resolution that means that if they do violate it -- in the pure skeptic's view, when they violate it -- it will be reported, and that'll be the basis for further action by the board," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

In Vienna, where the IAEA board met, U.S. officials said for the first time that the United States is willing to take Iran to the Security Council on its own.

Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders said that "we believe Iran's nuclear weapons program poses a growing threat to international peace and security" and that "any member of the United Nations may bring to the attention of the Security Council any situation that might endanger the maintenance of international peace and security."

If the United States did so, Iran would be likely to highlight other wording in the resolution that says Iran's suspension is a "voluntary, non-legally binding confidence-building measure," giving Tehran legal maneuvering room to fight the United States.

"My government would like to state, for the record, our reservations about this resolution," Sanders said, adding: "Most of what the board is still requesting of Iran is sadly familiar. Indeed, we have been making such requests since June 2003."

Iranian negotiator Sirus Naseri fell asleep during Sanders's speech, according to diplomats in the room.

The only toughly worded sentence in the two-page resolution criticizes Iran for concealing its nuclear program in the past but welcomes the corrective measures it has taken since October 2003, when it was first reported to the IAEA's board.

Much of the mild wording on Iran's program was won in last-minute negotiations after Iran rescinded a request to continue research work on 20 centrifuges.

"This resolution which was approved by the IAEA was a definite defeat for our enemies who wanted to pressure Iran by sending its case to the U.N. Security Council," President Mohammad Khatami was quoted by state radio as saying.

The entire resolution is contingent on the success of Iran's negotiations with Europe and its continued suspension.

If the deal does unravel and Iran resumes its uranium-enrichment programs, Washington would have an easier time persuading allies to report Iran to the Security Council.

Iran says its once-secret program of uranium enrichment, which was exposed by an exile group two years ago, is part of a future nuclear energy program. But Iran's vast oil and gas wealth, the scale of the program, and 18 years of concealment have fueled suspicions that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

A recent CIA report on weapons of mass destruction says the U.S. government is convinced Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon but offered no concrete evidence.