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Monday, August 08, 2005

Iran Resumes Nuclear Work, a Step That May Lead to Sanctions - New York Times

Iran Resumes Nuclear Work, a Step That May Lead to Sanctions - New York TimesAugust 8, 2005
Iran Resumes Nuclear Work, a Step That May Lead to Sanctions
By NAZILA FATHI

TEHRAN, Aug. 8- Iran resumed sensitive nuclear activities today at one of its facilities, despite warnings from European negotiators that the move would prompt them to refer the case to the United Nations Security Council for punitive action.

With surveillance cameras from the International Atomic Energy Agency installed, Iranian technicians at a facility outside Isfahan resumed the long, intricate process of converting uranium that Iran says is intended to produce energy but the West worries is a precursor for nuclear weapons.

The United States and its European allies reacted with dismay to the renewed activity, and left little doubt that they would take Iran to the United Nations Security Council with a recommendation for economic sanctions if Iran did not back down.

The State Department even held out the possibility that the United States might deny a visa to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was sworn in on Saturday as Iran's president, to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York next month.

Iran has long contended that it has the legal right to convert and enrich uranium for peaceful energy purposes, but agreed to suspend its activities as long as negotiations lasted with Britain, France and Germany over its nuclear program.

Concerned that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, Europeans negotiators put forward a proposal last week - with the support of the United States - to provide Iran with economic, technological, security and political incentives should it abandon its conversion and enrichment activities.

But Iran rejected the proposal, saying the offer failed to meet its "minimum expectations."

Mohammad Saidi, vice president for Iran's Atomic Organization, who was present at the facility near Isfahan today, said that Iran would like to continue negotiating with Europe and intended to keep its freeze on nuclear enrichment. Even so, the facility began an earlier stage of the process, known conversion, the official Iranian news agency reported.

France's foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, called the Iranian actions "a grave crisis," while Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, told ARD television that the nuclear issue "will end up at the Security Council if Iran does not give in."

European diplomats said Iran would be presented with an ultimatum during a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors meeting in Vienna on Tuesday: Cease the uranium conversion or face sanctions. Although no timetable has been set for a response, officials and diplomats said the issue would likely be taken up during the United Nations meeting in September.

The three European nations that have been negotiating with Iran for the last two years, along with the European Union, threatened last week to end the talks should Iran resume its nuclear development. The European diplomats said they would follow through on that threat if Iran does not respond positively to the last-chance ultimatum that is to be issued after Tuesday's meeting in Vienna.

"It definitely will end the negotiations," one European diplomat said. He and others declined to be identified by name before a formal position is taken at the meeting on Tuesday.

A senior administration official said the United States would support a motion for United Nations sanctions, should Iran not back down. Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman, said "this is Iran thumbing its nose at a productive approach" by the Europeans. "We'll have to work together to take a response."

Uranium conversion involves turning mined uranium, known as yellowcake, into a gas known as uranium tetra-fluoride, or UF4. The gas is then turned into uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which can be fed into centrifuges for enrichment. The process can lead to making nuclear fuel or, if enriched to high levels, nuclear weapons.

The Iranian news agency reported that yellow cake was injected into the equipment for making UF4 today. It also said that the rest of the facility would be operational after the I.A.E.A. inspectors removed the agency's seals at other sections and installed the cameras.

Iran's action today was largely symbolic - the conversion of raw uranium into gas is many steps removed from making a weapon, and Iran says it already possesses uranium in gas form - but it poses both a short- and long-term challenge to Europe and the Bush administration.

The immediate challenge is to determine if the European nations and the United States can now win over enough members of the board of the I.A.E.A. to refer Iran to the security council for possible sanctions. It is a risky political effort, both because the I.A.E.A. board might balk, and because Iran has threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if it is subjected to sanctions. North Korea did exactly that two and a half years ago.

The longer term challenge is to President Bush's effort to ensure that no new nations are allowed to produce enriched uranium or to reprocess plutonium, the two routes to making a nuclear bomb.

In essence, Mr. Bush wants to break the "nuclear fuel cycle," the ability of a country to produce its own nuclear fuel, which could then be used for either civilian or military purposes. For that reason, last week the United States refused to go along with demands by North Korea that it be allowed to retain a nuclear reactor.

In Iran's case, the country already has a large reactor under construction, though Washington has prevailed on Russia to take back the spent fuel that it sells to Iran. If that plan works, the fuel will not be available for bomb-making.

Iran argues that under the non-proliferation treaty it has a right to a civilian nuclear power program - and it points out that no one has ever proven it is seeking to produce a nuclear weapon. But Iran has admitted to deceiving inspectors for 17 years about many of its activities, and the United States argues that those deceptions effectively negated its right to control its nuclear fuel.

If the United States decides to deny a visa for Mr. Ahmadinejad, the State Department said, it would be as much for his possible role in the taking of American hostages in Tehran in 1979 as Iran's nuclear activities today. Thus far, the government has found no evidence to support the hostages' allegations that he was among their captors.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is planning to address the United Nations General Assembly to discuss his nation's nuclear program and other foreign policy issues, Iran's Fars news agency reported.

A spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council said today that Mr. Ahmadinejad had appointed a conservative politician to replace Hassan Rowhani, a pragmatic negotiator who headed the talks with Europe for two years.

The new secretary of the council, Ali Larijani, was a security adviser to Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his representative at the council. Last year he described Iran's decision to freeze its nuclear activities while it tried to reach a settlement with Europe as "trading a pearl for a lollipop."

Analysts in Tehran linked Iran's decision to resume work at the facility with the policies of the new president.

"It seems that Mr. Ahmadinejad's team wants to reject the past policies in the first week that it is taking office," said Mohammad Hafezian, a political analyst in Tehran.

"His team includes of conservative and military forces and is not familiar with international politics. They think they can forward their policies with the instrument of pressure, the same tool they have used inside the country."

The previous team, Mr. Hafezian added, "would not have started work so unexpectedly and without coordination with the international community."

David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Aspen, Colo., and Joel Brinkley contributed reporting from Washington.

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