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Friday, January 13, 2006

Iran Threatens to Prevent Inspections of Nuclear Facilities - New York Times

Iran Threatens to Prevent Inspections of Nuclear Facilities - New York TimesJanuary 13, 2006
Iran Threatens to Prevent Inspections of Nuclear Facilities
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN and JOHN O'NEIL

BERLIN, Jan. 13 - Iran's foreign minister today threatened to limit its cooperation with international atomic inspectors, in an angry reaction to the European decision Thursday to demand that Iran be referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions.

Manouchehr Mottaki, the foreign minister, said that a referral would force Iran to "end all voluntary measures" of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Europeans will lose all other options currently in their possession at talks with Tehran," Mr. Mottaki said, according to news agencies.

Reuters also reported that a leading Iranian cleric, Ahmad Khatami, said in a sermon today that the country would resist a "psychological war" waged by the West.

"This nation is not a nation to yield to such pressures," Mr. Khatami told a crowd of worshippers at Tehran University, Reuters said. "The Europeans should avoid the language of threat. Using this language against the great Iranian nation is useless."

Foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany declared Thursday at a news conference in Berlin that three years of talks with Iran over its nuclear program had come to a "dead end," in the words of Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany.

Shortly afterward, in an apparently orchestrated response, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared in Washington that the United States fully supported the European action. Iran's actions, she said, "have shattered the basis for negotiation."

With plans for the three European countries to hold an emergency meeting Monday with the United States, Russia and China, the long-simmering Iranian dispute is moving quickly to a boil.

The European countries opened talks with Iran in 2002 after a secret nuclear program was discovered. Iran admitted in 2003 that it had deceived international inspectors but insisted that its program was for peaceful purposes only. Nevertheless, it suspended the program as talks continued.

Since the election of a more conservative government in August, Iran has taken a harder line. The current conflict was sparked by its decision to resume nuclear research, including work with the centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

Despite the new resolve by the Americans and Europeans, and very probably by Russia and China, on getting Iran to reverse course in the nuclear area, many experts and diplomats say the process of actually coercing that step could take a long time and may never work.

Iran is believed to be years away from making bombs but only a year or two from having the expertise to do so. For its part, the Iranian government says it is only doing what it is allowed to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "Iran does not need any country's permission," said Mr. Mottaki today. "It is our legitimate right to have nuclear technology."

The pullback in cooperation Mr. Mottaki threatened today refers to a voluntary agreement Iran entered into after the disclosures about its hidden program. Under the agreement, nuclear inspectors had the right to conduct snap inspections.

But last fall, as tensions began to rise, Iran's Parliament passed a law declaring that the snap inspections would be ended if the dispute were sent to the Security Council. "The government must cease all voluntary measures of cooperation under the law," he said.

The new round of research is being conducted with cameras from the International Atomic Energy Commission in place.

Mr. Mottaki said that the Europeans "should recognize Iran's right to do nuclear research for peaceful purposes."

In return, he said, "Tehran will have to provide clear explanations on its nuclear program and ease Europe's concerns."

That formulation is unlikely to stop the push by Europe and the United States to block the program. Officials in these countries are worried not only about the production of enriched uranium, but about research that would give Iran the ability to conduct enrichment, since the difference between producing reactor-grade uranium and weapons-grade uranium involves only the scale of the effort.

Many Western experts say that Tehran appears determined to press ahead even if sanctions are imposed and the country becomes isolated diplomatically. There is no sign that leading nations are ready to cut off oil purchases, because such a step would send oil prices rocketing, possibly damaging the world economy.

American and European diplomats said, however, that several days of intense diplomacy had convinced them that Russia and China would join in a growing consensus that the International Atomic Energy Agency board, comprising 35 countries, should refer the matter of Iran to the Security Council, if only to register a nearly worldwide condemnation of the Tehran government.

A senior State Department official in Washington said that Russia had indicated that it would not oppose a referral at the board but that the West was trying to get Russia to go further and vote yes. On Thursday, Ms. Rice spoke about this matter to the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, as she had done earlier in the week. Mr. Lavrov said in Moscow that Russia was putting a heavy premium on Iran's compliance with international regulations on nuclear development.

"Iran has removed the seals from a uranium enrichment plant and therefore urgent consultations are needed," Mr. Lavrov said, according to the Interfax news agency.

The senior State Department official said, "I'm not saying that Russia is in the yes column, but they're moving in that direction." If Russia abstains on a referral or even votes yes, American and European diplomats say, China will probably go along and there will be a greater chance for approval of an anti-Iran measure by India, Brazil and other so-called nonaligned members of the atomic energy agency board.

The move toward referral to the Security Council did not necessarily mean that the Council itself would impose penalties without giving negotiations still another chance to resolve the matter, several diplomats said. An initial action simply condemning Iran and calling on it to change its behavior, with the threat of punishment in the background, appeared the most probable step once the matter gets to the Council.

Statements by France and Germany today underscored the desire not to leave the impression that their countries were calling for punitive measures immediately.

"The question of sanctions is premature," said a spokesman for the French foreign ministry, according to Agence France-Presse. The spokesman added that it was necessary to proceed "step by step."

American officials had made similar remarks on Thursday.

"We've always said that going to the Security Council is not an end in itself and did not signal an end to negotiations," said Robert Joseph, under secretary of state for arms control and international security. "Going to the Council provides a menu of options that can be used to try to get Iran to reverse course."

The campaign to raise pressure on Iran involved telephone calls from Ms. Rice and her top aides and plans for an extraordinary meeting on Monday in London of senior envoys from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.

American officials said this meeting would be focused on a strategy for a resolution aimed at referring the matter to the Security Council, to be adopted at an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency board as early as later this month. American and European officials said they were prepared to be flexible on both the timing of the resolution and its wording, to get a maximum number of countries on board.

There remained concern among some Western diplomats that while Russia and China seemed willing to abstain in a resolution of referral to the Security Council, they could demand delays or watered-down wording changes that would undercut the effort.

The possibility of more negotiations with Iran, perhaps soon, was raised again, however, by the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, who said Thursday evening that he had spoken earlier in the day to Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to head off a looming confrontation.

Iran was still interested in "serious and constructive negotiations," Mr. Annan said, adding that the only viable solution to the dispute with Iran was "a negotiated one."

But American and European diplomats saw little prospect of any talks with Iran soon, at least not unless Iran took major steps to back away from a confrontation, like returning to its suspension of the conversion of raw uranium into a gas, and the enrichment of that gas into a concentrated form that could eventually be used for nuclear fuel or a bomb.

For two years, the United States has repeatedly declared that after many instances of Iran failing to disclose its nuclear activities to international inspectors, its conduct should be subject to condemnation or sanctions at the Security Council. But until this week, the United States' major European allies have declined to endorse that step.

Only after allowing the Europeans to negotiate with Iran and to offer possible incentives for suspending its activities, and encouraging Russia to make a separate offer to operate a joint uranium enrichment program on Russian soil, has the United States brought these partners around to more overt pressure.

Richard Bernstein reported from Berlin for this article, Steven R. Weisman contributed reporting from Washington and John O'Neil from New York.

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