Iran Nuclear NewsMahmoud Ahmadinejad plays game of cat-and-mouse with West over...

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plays game of cat-and-mouse with West over nuclear deal

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ImageThe Times: President Ahmadinejad demonstrated yesterday that he has become a master of playing cat and mouse with the West — and this time the mouse was real. The Times

James Bone in New York and Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent

ImagePresident Ahmadinejad demonstrated yesterday that he has become a master of playing cat and mouse with the West — and this time the mouse was real.

Once again, the Iranian leader offered a last-minute concession to head off the West’s drive for new sanctions against the Islamic republic. At the same time, Iran thumbed its nose at UN restrictions on its ballistic missiles programme by sending a rocket into space carrying a mouse, two turtles and some worms.

In an interview on state television, Mr Ahmadinejad said that Iran had no problem shipping enriched uranium abroad in a deal that Tehran had resisted for months. The surprise announcement came as the West prepared to ask Russia and China to back UN sanctions on the Iranian energy sector, central bank and Revolutionary Guards — the first UN sanctions since March 2008.

Political directors from the “big three” EU powers — Britain, France and Germany — are to hold a telephone conference call with their US counterpart tomorrow before consulting Russia and China later in the day.

Western officials acknowledged that Iran’s about-face on the uranium swap would undercut their case.

While they mulled the implications of Mr Ahmadinejad’s latest move, Tehran’s state television showed the Kavoshgar-3 (Explorer-3) rocket blasting off, carrying what it called living organisms. The ISNA news agency said that the capsule returned to Earth with its rather unusual “passengers”.

Mr Ahmadinejad hailed the launch as a breakthrough that would help to break “the global domineering system” of Western powers. At a ceremony for a new satellite he said that Iran hoped to send astronauts into space soon.

Western experts suggested that the space programme provided cover for the development of long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear pay-load. The White House denounced the launch as a “provocative act”.

Mark Wallace, a former US Ambassador to the UN and president of the lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran, characterised Mr Ahmadinejad’s actions as chess moves. “The Iranian regime is the best chess player on the international scene right now. Certainly, that team is outplaying the West,” he said.

Iran agreed to the enriched uranium swap at talks with the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany in October under the pressure that accompanied the exposure of its secret enrichment plant at Qom. Since then, however, it has repeatedly pulled back from an agreement, seeking to rewrite the terms and flouting deadlines.

Under the UN-backed deal, Iran would ship three quarters of its stocks of nuclear fuel to Russia and France for conversion into fuel rods for its Tehran research reactor, which produces medical isotopes. The swap would delay the stockpiling of fissile material for what the international community believes is a clandestine weapons programme.

In his television interview on Tuesday, Mr Ahmadinejad said: “Some made a fuss for nothing. There is no problem. We sign a contract. We give them 3.5 per cent [enriched uranium] and it will take four or five months for them to give us the 20 per cent [enriched uranium].”

Western powers reacted with scepticism but China and Russia embraced it. Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said after meeting his Chinese counterpart in Paris: “I am perplexed and even a bit pessimistic.”

Britain said that the crucial issue was still the refusal by Iran to return to talks on its nuclear programme.

Western powers said that Iran should notify the International Atomic Energy Agency, which brokered the deal, that it had formally accepted.

“We have to see whether Iran actually takes up the offer to enrich uranium abroad,” Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said. “One speech does not necessarily mean it will take further steps.”

The Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that he believed it was urgent to continue negotiations with Iran, adding that talks were under way on Iran shipping uranimum abroad.

A senior Western diplomat acknowledged that Mr Ahmadinejad’s gambit could buy Iran more time.

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