The Wall Street Journal: Iran may be preparing for a new showdown over its nuclear ambitions with European negotiators and their wary supporters in Washington. In recent days, Iranian officials have signaled repeatedly that they may resume the first stage of nuclear-fuel production, making uranium feedstock that can be enriched for reactor fuel or a nuclear bomb. Europe and the U.S. are pressing Tehran to abandon all efforts to produce nuclear fuel. The Wall Street Journal
By CARLA ANNE ROBBINS and MARC CHAMPION
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Iran may be preparing for a new showdown over its nuclear ambitions with European negotiators and their wary supporters in Washington.
In recent days, Iranian officials have signaled repeatedly that they may resume the first stage of nuclear-fuel production, making uranium feedstock that can be enriched for reactor fuel or a nuclear bomb. Europe and the U.S. are pressing Tehran to abandon all efforts to produce nuclear fuel.
Tehran yesterday issued a statement that was simultaneously defiant and vague, saying it is prepared to resume “some” nuclear-fuel activities short of uranium enrichment. It came just hours before Iran’s foreign minister told a key international arms-control conference in New York that his country would never abandon its legal right to produce enriched uranium fuel for what it insists is a peaceful nuclear-power program.
An Iranian timeline privately delivered to European negotiators earlier this spring and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal also specifies an “April-July 2005” window for Iran’s resumption of uranium conversion. According to a diplomat with knowledge of the talks, Iran tried to deliver an updated version of that timeline late last week at a meeting in London. The new version said uranium conversion would restart by the end of May or early June, and placed a six-month limit on Iran’s overall suspension of enrichment-related activities.
The diplomat said European negotiators refused to accept the paper, with its explicit deadline, as the basis for negotiations. That may in part explain Iran’s more assertive public posture.
Tehran’s statements are almost certainly intended to test the limits of European tolerance and the cohesion of the French, German and British negotiating team. If Iran, as some suspect, is using its nuclear-power program to perfect skills for a covert weapons program, reliably mastering the large-scale production of uranium hexafluoride would be an important step.
Whether Tehran will follow through, in the face of what European diplomats say would be their strong opposition, is hard to predict, especially with the nuclear program the focus of factional struggles in the lead-up to Iran’s June presidential elections.
Diplomats said yesterday that the so-called European Union-3, the team that has been leading the negotiations, could have a much harder time agreeing on a response if Iran decides to resume lesser activities such as maintenance, quality control or other preparatory work at either its shuttered uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan or its pilot enrichment plant at Natanz.
European officials repeatedly have said that both uranium conversion and enrichment are bright lines that would end negotiations and trigger a referral to the United Nations Security Council, although they acknowledge the Iranians may try to call their bluff. Iran for nearly two decades hid most of its nuclear efforts from international monitors, in violation of its international agreements. The U.S. long has argued that merits Security Council action.
“They’re always probing for weaknesses,” one European diplomat said yesterday, adding, “We’re all wondering if this is ‘the crisis’ or just another test.”
A second European diplomat said the trio of countries would take no action until inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency who are monitoring Iran’s suspension report back that some specific activity has been restarted.
Yesterday’s speech by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was clearly crafted to rally the support of many of the 183 nuclear “have-nots” attending the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. “It is unacceptable that some intend to limit the access to nuclear technology to an exclusive club of technologically advanced states under the pretext of nonproliferation,” Mr. Kharrazi said. Echoing the words used by the U.S. at yesterday’s opening session, Mr. Kharrazi declared that the “credibility of the NPT is at stake,” but blamed the U.S. for its pursuit of new nuclear weapons and its rejection of other arms-control treaties.
But most of the day’s sparring appeared focused on the Europeans and their American allies, who have been closely watching for any sign of backsliding. In what might be read as an implicit threat, Mr. Kharrazi said that a forced “cessation of legal activity” like enrichment would be no guarantee against “a break out” — a code word for a weapons program. “It is indeed a historically tested recipe for one.”
The Europeans have said that while they are open to suggestions, the only “objective guarantee” of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program they can imagine is the complete elimination of its uranium-enrichment efforts.
Iran has insisted on its legal right, under the Nonproliferation Treaty, to produce fuel for a peaceful power program, and said that monitoring of its fuel production by the IAEA should be enough of an objective guarantee.
The current round of talks was started in December in hopes of bridging that gap, with the Europeans dangling economic and security incentives in front of Tehran.
The U.S. is insisting that Iran completely dismantle all of its fuel-cycle equipment, while some Europeans may be ready to accept a permanent, closely monitored “suspension” of all fuel activities in an attempt to help the Iranians save face.
Europe’s negotiators say their task is made harder by difficult-to-read factional struggles in Tehran, as well as the presidential elections, in which Iran’s right to nuclear technology is an issue of national pride. Indeed, diplomats differ on whether there is anything the West could offer Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Some Europeans say they have a similar problem reading the Bush administration, which has given only grudging support to the negotiations while doing little to hide its desire for “regime change” in Tehran. At Europe’s urging, President Bush agreed earlier this year that Iran could begin accession talks with the World Trade Organization. At the same time, the U.S. refuses to have any direct contact with the Iranians, giving Tehran a further excuse to resist any deal.
The Iranians have constantly probed for cracks in the EU-3’s unity on the enrichment issue. Some officials in Washington have expressed concern that France might be willing to accept an Iranian proposal to retain a small pilot enrichment plant under IAEA supervision. “Phase two” of Iran’s proposed framework, delivered to negotiators in March, specifies the “assembly, installation and testing of 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz.” “Phase 4,” the final stage, calls for the full commissioning of the Natanz plants, which can house some 50,000 centrifuges.
French officials say they remain opposed to any enrichment efforts, while other diplomats said any doubts about Paris’s position were firmly laid to rest at Friday’s meeting with the Iranians in London. Tehran made no effort to disguise its disappointment with that meeting. On Saturday, Iran’s top negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, said his country’s leadership would make “a definitive decision on whether or not to resume uranium enrichment” this week.