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Iran: Tehran Threatens To Restart Uranium Enrichment In Crisis With IAEA

  • Charles Recknagel --> Tehran is threatening to resume uranium enrichment if the UN's nuclear watchdog agency passes a resolution criticizing Iran for poor cooperation in opening its program to international inspection. The threat raises tension levels as the International Atomic Energy Agency meets this week in Vienna amid U.S. charges that Iran is seeking the capability to develop nuclear weapons.

Prague, 17 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran is raising the stakes as it seeks to fend off a drive by three Western powers to get the UN's nuclear agency to rebuke it for poor cooperation with arms inspectors.

President Mohammad Khatami said yesterday that Tehran could resume its enrichment of uranium if the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passes a resolution drafted by Britain, France, and Germany that deplores Iran's current level of cooperation. "If this [IAEA] resolution passes, Iran will have no moral commitment to suspend uranium enrichment," he said.

Tehran agreed last year to suspend its enrichment of uranium for an "interim period" as part of a European-brokered deal with the IAEA.

The Iranian president also accused Britain, France, and Germany of collaborating with Washington, which accuses Iran of secretly trying to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons. He said Tehran could review its relations with the three European powers in the wake of any critical resolution. Khatami said, "If Europe has no commitment toward Iran, then Iran will not have a commitment toward Europe."

Britain, France, and Germany- -- all of whom have trade relations with Iran -- are pressing for a resolution that not only "deplores" Iran's inadequate cooperation but calls for it to cancel two dual-use programs that could help Tehran acquire a weapons-development capability.
Evidence that Tehran has been hiding many dual-use elements of its nuclear program first came to light when its uranium-enrichment facilities were exposed by an Iranian exile group in 2002.

One of those programs is Tehran's planned construction of a heavy-water nuclear reactor near the central city of Arak. Iran has said it will use the reactor's production of plutonium to develop radioisotopes for medical and other research use. Plutonium can also be used to manufacture nuclear bombs.

The other activity is conversion of uranium into uranium hexaflouride, a gas that can be processed in centrifuges to yield enriched uranium. Iran has called the uranium conversion a research effort outside the scope of its earlier pledge to suspend uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used as a fuel for producing nuclear power or to build nuclear weapons.

Evidence that Iran is pursuing both programs is contained in a report submitted by IAEA investigators to the agency's governing board this month. The IAEA's board has been meeting in Vienna this week as it tries to formulate a response to the findings.

Tensions over the inspectors' report rose further today as the IAEA admitted that one key charge it contains is erroneous. IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said inspectors had wrongly cited Iran for failing to acknowledge importing components for advanced centrifuges. El-Baradei told reporters that Tehran has produced a tape recording confirming that it verbally informed the agency about the imports in January. He termed the inspectors' error "minor," saying, "You have to understand we work with thousands of papers and thousands of sites."

The head of Iran's delegation to the IAEA, Hussein Musavian, called the erroneous charge a "big mistake" and said it had tainted the atmosphere of the board's review session. He suggested that Tehran will seize on the error to press still harder against any critical resolution. "Our expectation definitely is that they [Britain, France, and Germany] should [make] substantive changes in the draft and in the resolution because now it's completely proved there is no...lack of cooperation, and no changes in Iranian information," he said. "Therefore, if they want to be realistic, they should change everything."

Musavian said yesterday he believes the majority of IAEA board members -- which include representatives of many developing countries -- are convinced Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. "Americans have made this allegation [that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program] during the last 20 years, but I believe we have had 670 inspections during the last 15 months," he said. "Now, for the majority of board members, it is clear that there is no atomic bomb or no diversion towards military activities."

Washington's ambassador to the IAEA, Kenneth Brill, yesterday accused Tehran of trying to intimidate board members. "This full-blown effort of trying to change the direction of the board through public and private intimidation, I think, again suggests that Iran has something to hide," Brill said. "People who are trying to produce electricity for light bulbs don't engage in this kind of behavior."

The high tensions between Iran and the Western powers constitute the latest round of what has been a continuing crisis over Iran's nuclear program. Evidence that Tehran has been hiding many dual-use elements of its nuclear program first came to light when its uranium-enrichment facilities were exposed by an Iranian exile group in 2002.

The United States has pushed repeatedly for the IAEA to strongly reprimand Iran for lack of cooperation, but previously lacked support from European states. EU members had urged a more moderate tone in the interest of working cooperatively with Iran.

In a resolution following the IAEA's board meeting in November, the agency "strongly" deplored Tehran's past pursuit of nuclear activities but praised Iran for an "offer of active cooperation and openness" in the future. The praise was directly related to the Iranian government's pledge to the visiting foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany in October to suspend uranium enrichment.

Now, the revelations contained in the latest report to the IAEA's board appear to have moved Berlin, London, and Paris closer to the U.S. position that Iran must be pressed harder.

Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and bound by it to cooperate fully with IAEA inspectors. If Tehran fails to do so, the IAEA has the power to refer its concerns to the United Nations -- a measure that could ultimately lead to the Security Council imposing sanctions.

However, the IAEA's governing board is widely considered unlikely to opt for any such action. So far, inspectors have found evidence of Iran pursuing dual-use programs that could apply equally to nuclear-energy or nuclear-weapons development programs. But they have not found evidence proving Tehran is actually engaged in producing arms.