US refuses to discuss Iran's nuclear plans in face-to-face talks on Iraq

Posted in United States | 18-Apr-06 | Author: Jonathan Steele and Julian Bor| Source: Guardian (UK)

A general view of Iran's uranium enrichment complex in Natanz.

· New photos of plant add to fears over Tehran's goal
· Halt aid to militias over border, US to warn

Although the US is resisting pressure to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions through direct talks with Tehran, rather than sanctions or military strikes, it still intends to meet senior Iranian officials for discussions on Iraq at which it will demand an end to Iranian meddling, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Baghdad.

He is to head the US team at face-to-face talks, which will be the first formal diplomatic meeting between the two countries since the Islamic revolution in 1979 and are expected to open in Baghdad shortly.

Leading Republican and Democratic senators have urged the Bush administration to engage Iran in full-scale talks, but in an interview with the Guardian Mr Khalilzad made it clear that the talks would be limited to Iraq. The US wanted Iran to halt aid to Iraq's sectarian militias, and stop smuggling al-Qaida fighters and weapons across the border, he said.

He criticised Iranian "negative propaganda". "The Shias have been the main beneficiaries of this change, yet Iran has been very critical of the liberation and the liberators," he said. "A lot of media in Iran exaggerate the problems here ... They are inciting people against the forces that have come to liberate Iraq."

The talks with Iran have the backing of Iraqi leaders, who also insist on their own representation at the table. "We have no objection," Mr Khalilzad told the Guardian. "We're not going to negotiate on behalf of Iraq." The talks were put on hold until Iraq had a new government because "in this part of the world people always think in great conspiracy theories ... We didn't want people here to think that the Iranians and the Americans are together deciding on the Iraqi government."

Concern over Iran's nuclear intentions was heightened yesterday with the publication of new satellite photographs of its uranium conversion plant at Isfahan and its uranium enrichment complex at Natanz, showing evidence of new tunnels and underground facilities.

The satellite images were analysed by the Institute for Science and International Security, an independent nuclear watchdog group. "They seem to be burrowing away like crazy," said its president, David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector. "Taking out the nuclear weapons programme in Iran seems to be nearly impossible. They have so many underground sites now, you don't know what to hit ... The times for military strikes that could have taken out the weapons programme are gone."

Mr Albright and Paul Brannan, an expert on the nuclear black market, said the new tunnel at Isfahan was the third at the site. "Mounds of earth can also be found next to the new entrance, suggestive of recent excavation," they wrote in an analysis of the photographs. "This new tunnel entrance is indicative of a new underground facility or the further expansion of the existing one."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Iranian scientists are "presently conducting research" on an advanced centrifuge that would quadruple the country's capacity to enrich uranium. This would add weight to suspicions that Iran has a parallel, covert nuclear programme built around technology provided by the renegade Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan.

At the forthcoming talks, the US envoy will speak to the Iranians in their own language. Mr Khalilzad was born in Afghanistan in 1951 and his mother tongue is Dari, which differs little from Farsi. The third US overlord in Baghdad since the invasion, Mr Khalilzad is considered the most successful. As a Muslim, educated in Beirut, he understands local culture. But in a constant reminder of the risks he runs, he keeps a tailor's dummy draped with his flak jacket and helmet in his office.

Mr Khalilzad is a neo-con who felt the US should have toppled Saddam Hussein after expelling him from Kuwait in 1991. His technique for countering the fall in support for the war in US opinion polls is to offer lurid scenarios for what might happen "if we were to leave prematurely before Iraq can stand on its own feet".

"One danger would be that the effort by terrorists to provoke sectarian conflict could escalate and produce circumstances in which regional states could be sucked in on one side or the other."

The second scenario was of "al-Qaida taking over part of Iraq, such as Anbar province, to found a 'mini-Talibistan'". What al-Qaida did in remote, poverty-stricken Afghanistan would seem like "child's play compared to what they could do given Iraq's location and resources".

The third risk would arise if Iraq imploded into sectarian war. "The Kurds may take matters into their own hands, saying, 'Look, Iraq isn't going to work, we'd better look after ourselves'. There are territorial disputes with a constitutional path to resolve them. They may say, 'Aha, no, it can't be resolved that way,' and from that Kurdish scenario regional powers could also be drawn in."

Without spelling it out, Mr Khalilzad is suggesting the Kurds might grab the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, which could then prompt intervention by the Turkish army to protect the local Turkoman population.

Mr Khalilzad acknowledges that the militias are now killing more people than the Sunni insurgents. "I don't want it to come across as though we want to disarm the Shias and let Sunnis have arms," he said. "Or vice versa," he quickly added.

Before the war, the neo-cons touted the benefits of regional democratisation that would flow from toppling Saddam. Mr Khalilzad now talks in terms of damage limitation: leaving Iraq would cost more than staying. It is a significant change. Whatever people felt about the invasion, he insists, "the fact that we came to liberate this country gives us a moral responsibility to make it work now". Iraq is going through "a difficult patch", but "we don't have the choice of disengaging".


What's wrong with Iran's nuclear programme?

The rest of the world is sceptical that it is intended only for generating electricity, after Iran attempted to hide much of its work under ground. A 2004 agreement with Europe to suspend uranium enrichment broke down after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in June.

Is there proof Iran is making a bomb?

The International Atomic Energy Agency says no, but it is unhappy about Iran's lack of cooperation and wants answers to its questions. It is due to report back to the UN security council by April 28.

And if Iran does not comply by then?

There is a split among the security council's permanent members. The US, Britain and France want a binding resolution with legal weight that could lead to sanctions; Russia and China want a softer approach.