Iranian rebuff imperils atom deal with Europe

Posted in Iran | 26-Nov-04 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

A general view of a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in Isfahan.
VIENNA Iran refused on Thursday to abandon plans to operate uranium enrichment equipment that could be used to make nuclear weapons, European and Iranian officials said.

The Iranian refusal threatened to scuttle a nuclear agreement reached 10 days ago between Iran and France, Britain and Germany to freeze all of Iran's uranium enrichments activities, European officials said. It also gave new ammunition to the Bush administration, which claims that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program and cannot be trusted.

The impasse coincided with the opening of crucial meetings to review Iran's nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear monitoring body that has the authority to refer Iran to the United Nations for possible censure or sanctions.

Mohamed ElBardadei, the agency chief, said in a speech Thursday that Iran has so far failed to meet its pledge to fully freeze uranium enrichment because of its insistence on operating twenty centrifuges for research.

Centrifuges are machines that spin at supersonic speed to purify or enrich uranium for use in nuclear reactors. But when uranium is enriched to a very high degree, it can be used in a nuclear weapon.

Noting Iran's long history of concealment of its nuclear activities, ElBaradei also said, "A confidence deficit has been created, and confidence need to be restored. Iran's active cooperation and full transparency is therefore indispensable."

He also expressed the hope that the dispute would "resolve itself" by Friday, and one of his aides said that he was pressing the Iranians to back down. But the new Iranian demand, contained in two formal letters to the agency, has caught the Europeans in a bind.

On the one hand, the Europeans have stated that their deal must stand as is and have told the Iranians their demand for an exemption for any reason is unacceptable. On the other hand, they are eager to salvage the hard-won deal and have already softened language in a draft resolution critical of Iran's nuclear activities that is to be passed by the 35 countries that make up the agency's ruling board.

"Someone is going to have to back down," a Western diplomat involved in the negotiations said. "Both Iran and the Europeans are in a very tough spot right now."

In a blow to the Bush administration's efforts to punish Iran for its nuclear activities, the European trio has rejected several U.S. proposals for a harshly worded resolution against Iran, said diplomats involved in the negotiations.

Among the rejected proposals are a threat to immediately take Iran to the Security Council for possible censure or even sanctions if there is proof that it is violating its commitments to freeze its enrichment activities, diplomats said.

The Europeans told the Americans that such a threat would be incompatible with their agreement with Iran, which requires Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities in return for possible rewards that would be negotiated over time.

Another proposal rejected by the Europeans was a much softer amendment that would have welcomed Iran's decision on uranium suspension as a "confidence-building measure" but also would have formally notified the Security Council of the suspension.

For the Americans, that move would at least have put the Iran nuclear issue on the Security Council's agenda and made it easier to debate the matter there.

American officials said they were told that the U.S. proposals would go against the spirit of the recent accord. When the American delegation questioned the wisdom of that approach, they were told repeatedly by their European allies that the United States would have to trust them.

European officials said they were convinced that the Iranians were using their demand to do enrichment research as a bargaining chip to attempt to wrest last-minute concessions in the resolution.

But the European trio was sufficiently alarmed that it told a meeting of delegations of the world's major industrialized countries Thursday that the deal would be "null and void" unless the Iranians relented, participants in the meeting said.