Prague, 24 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking today in New Zealand, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said, "We do not have any program to produce a nuclear weapon, and we don't find it useful for our security." Kharrazi is in New Zealand to boost political and economic cooperation between Tehran and Wellington.
But New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark took the occasion to urge Tehran to cooperate more fully with the UN nuclear agency to prove its nuclear program is peaceful. And that suggestion brought Iran's nuclear policy to the forefront of what otherwise was a routine diplomatic visit.
Kharrazi responded to Clark by defending what he called Iran's right to have nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. And he said that Tehran would protect its interests by retaliating against any country that launched a military strike against its nuclear facilities.
The Iranian foreign minister's statements were the latest escalation in a war of words with Israel that in recent days has seen Iran assert it has missiles capable of hitting the Jewish state. The head of the Political Bureau of Iran's Revolutionary Guards said earlier this month that "the entire Zionist territory, including its nuclear faculties and atomic arsenal, are currently within range of Iran's advanced missiles."
Analysts say that currently there are no indications Israel is preparing a strike against Iran. But repeated statements of Israeli concern over Iran's nuclear program have fueled speculation that Israel might try to preemptively destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, just as it hit Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981.
Israel's chief of staff, General Moshe Ya'alon, said this week that Iran's nuclear development must be halted before it proceeds much further. He told the Israeli daily "Yediot Ahronot" that "Iran is striving for nuclear capability and I suggest that in this matter [Israel] not rely on others."
"The perception [in the U.S. foreign-policy community] is that there is a possibility that the Bush administration may not be reelected, and in that case the Israelis could just go ahead and act and not worry about any political repercussions." - Samii
RFE/RL regional analyst William Samii said Kharrazi's statements today appear to be a general warning to Israel, not a response to specific threats. "I think that the Iranian statements about their readiness to defend the country, or act aggressively if attacked, are more preemptive than anything else," he said. "They are not based on any specific statements coming from Washington or from Israel."
He added: "The perception [in the U.S. foreign-policy community] is that there is a possibility that the Bush administration may not be reelected, and in that case the Israelis could just go ahead and act and not worry about any political repercussions. The other possibility is that, if the Bush administration is reelected, than it would in fact give a green light to the Israeli action against the Iranian nuclear facility. But I have to emphasize that these are rumors that are circulating in Washington, and I am sure the Iranians have heard these rumors and are perhaps reacting to them."
Tensions around Iran's nuclear program have grown over the past several months as the UN has failed to get Tehran to rapidly prove it has only a peaceful nuclear program.
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been investigating Iran's program, rebuked Tehran for unsatisfactory cooperation in June. The nuclear watchdog's governing board adopted a resolution saying, "Iran's cooperation has not been as full, timely, and proactive as it should have been," but set no deadline for compliance.
Tehran protested the resolution and said last month it would resume the manufacture, assembly, and testing of centrifuges to enrich uranium -- a nuclear fuel that can be used either for peaceful energy generation or for bomb making. The decision to resume work on centrifuges reversed an earlier promise to Britain, France, and Germany to suspend uranium-enrichment-related activities to demonstrate cooperation with the IAEA.
Kharrazi charged Washington today with trying to orchestrate an international campaign against Iran's nuclear program out of its own animosity to the Islamic Republic. "The question of the United States' position is a separate story," he said. "Animosity has prevailed between Iran and the United States for many years now, and therefore they have been looking for excuses and opportunities to put pressure on Iran."
The United States has long accused Iran of trying to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons under the guise of a nuclear-power program. The centerpiece of the power program is the commercial reactor Tehran is building near its southern Persian Gulf port of Bushehr with Russian assistance. The reactor is now due to become operational in October 2006.
A top U.S. arms-control official intensified pressure on Iran last week by saying that Tehran could develop nuclear weapons within three years if left unchecked. U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said in Washington that "Iran has told the EU three [Britain, France, and Germany] that it could possess nuclear weapons within three years."
But Bolton said that Washington wants to continue trying to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions by working through the IAEA. He said yesterday that the U.S. government wants a diplomatic solution to the crisis and not regime change in Iran.
The Vienna-based IAEA is due to hold its next review of Iran's cooperation at a meeting in September. The United States is likely to try to press the 35-nation body to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council for discussion of possible sanctions if Iran's level of cooperation is again judged unsatisfactory.