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Iran: Tehran Cool As Pressure Mounts To Clarify Nuclear Program

International pressure continues to mount on Tehran to make its nuclear program more transparent amid suspicions Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But so far, Tehran has given no indication of whether it will comply with the UN's demands for closer inspections of its nuclear facilities. This week, Tehran said only that the decision will ultimately be made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself and in accordance with national interests.

Prague, 5 august 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The UN is pushing ahead this week with efforts to persuade Tehran to open its nuclear facilities to surprise inspections -- but so far with little sign of success.

A three-member team from the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), started talks in Tehran today designed to clarify just what such inspections would entail.

IAEA spokesman Lothar Wedekind told RFE/RL that the team, which is composed of legal experts, is holding talks with top officials from Iran's nuclear organization. Wedekind said the talks, due to end tomorrow, are focusing on exactly what additional access the IAEA would like Iran to grant it by signing an Additional Protocol to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is already a signatory.

"The experts there are talking specifically about what extra rights of access and information and types of inspections -- including short-notice inspections or no-notice inspections that inspectors might have -- and what technologies they could use for environmental sampling and other measures that they would need to take to verify the [nature of Iran's nuclear] program," Wedekind said.

He continued: "The Additional Protocol is geared to trying to rule out that there are any undeclared nuclear activities going on in a country." He said basically, attempts are being made to clarify the legal agreement for Iran "so that both sides are clear on what their rights and obligations are."

He said the experts' visit follows up a trip to Tehran early last month by IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei to urge Iran to sign the Additional Protocol. At the time, Iranian officials asked the UN agency to send a legal team to explain in detail just what Tehran's obligations under the protocol would be.

But as the IAEA now goes forward with trying to convince Tehran to agree to the additional protocol, Tehran itself has given no clear indication that it will sign.

An Iranian government spokesman said this week that any decision on signing the protocol would have to be made by the highest authority in the country, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Spokesman Abdullah Ramazanzadeh told reporters: "The matter will be discussed in the government. The decision will be made in the Supreme National Security Council and after the [supreme] leader's approval it would be implemented." He also said the decision would be made based on Iran's national interest. He gave no time frame for when Iran might make any final decision.

The Iranian government statement comes amid a growing public debate within Iran over whether the country should cooperate with the IAEA demand for tougher inspections.

Some reformists allied to President Mohammad Khatami have called for Iran to sign the protocol to ease the international pressure. One member of the reformist-led parliament, Hussein Afarideh -- who also heads its Energy Commission -- told an Iranian daily recently that "if Iran does not join the protocol, then possibly its case will be sent to the UN Security Council and then naturally the country will face more difficulties."

Iran's representative to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, has called the Additional Protocol a "useful tool" for solving what he and other Iranian officials call Washington's political attacks on Tehran over its nuclear program. He has also warned against Iran becoming internationally isolated like another country Washington accuses of developing nuclear weapons, North Korea.

The IAEA has declared Pyongyang in breach of nuclear safeguards after it expelled UN inspectors in December, withdrew from the NPT and restarted a nuclear facility suspected of being used for weapons production. The IAEA has called for trying to settle the crisis diplomatically before the UN Security Council takes any steps such as imposing economic sanctions, which North Korea has said would be a declaration of war.

But some Iranian conservatives have signaled they would oppose signing the Additional Protocol, even to the point of following North Korea's example. The international-affairs adviser to the hard-line-led judiciary, Mohammad Javad Larijani, said recently that "if the West puts more pressure on Iran, we will withdraw from the NPT. This holds no problem for us."

So far, Iran's official position has been that it will only sign the protocol in exchange for greater access to nuclear technology from other countries to develop nuclear energy. The IAEA has said countries cannot negotiate terms for agreeing to the protocol. The agency argues that many other states with nuclear programs already have signed the protocol without preconditions.

As international pressure on Iran mounts, no deadlines have been set for resolving the crisis. The IAEA says its effort to persuade Iran to be more transparent is part of a continuing process that has gained urgency since the agency reprimanded Iran in June for repeated failures to report on its nuclear-material facilities and activities.

IAEA spokesman Wedekind said the next key date in the process comes next month, when the agency's board of governors is again due to review Iran's progress.

"We had the latest [progress] report in June, and there is another one planned in September which goes to our governing body. And then [the process] moves on to see what is the status and the outcome of the talks [over the additional protocol] and the inspections that we are conducting now," Wedekind said. "It's not deadline-oriented; everybody is urging them to consider [the protocol] and they have said they will actively consider it."

The IAEA currently conducts routine, announced inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities as part of Tehran's compliance with the NPT.

The European Union -- one of Iran's major trading partners -- warned late last month that it would review its relations with Iran next month in accordance with its behavior.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 21 July said in a statement that the Council of the European Union, the EU's ministerial-level decision-making body, had decided "to review future steps of cooperation between the EU and Iran in September in view of further developments particularly with regard to the...[IAEA] evaluations."

As the IAEA legal team arrived in Tehran yesterday, Iran rejected U.S. charges that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapons program. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters on a visit to the Philippines that "we are not looking for any military nuclear activity."

Tehran has said its nuclear program is purely to develop an alternative energy source -- something Washington says oil- and gas-rich Iran does not need.