The Guardian: Iran threw down the gauntlet to the west yesterday, telling UN nuclear inspectors it was preparing to resume part of its uranium enrichment programme in breach
of a pact with the EU. The enrichment programme could be used to arm nuclear warheads. It was a high-risk move that could shatter two years of negotiations with the EU, trigger an emergency meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna, and see Tehran referred for penalties to the UN security council.
Iran threw down the gauntlet to the west yesterday, telling UN nuclear inspectors it was preparing to resume part of its uranium enrichment programme in breach of a pact with the EU. The enrichment programme could be used to arm nuclear warheads.
It was a high-risk move that could shatter two years of negotiations with the EU, trigger an emergency meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna, and see Tehran referred for penalties to the UN security council. Iran delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency saying UN seals at a uranium conversion plant near the town of Isfahan would be removed to start turning raw uranium into a gaseous form that can then be processed into nuclear fuel.
Iran later said the UN nuclear inspectors had begun installing surveillance equipment at Isfahan, and in its view activities at the plant had restarted.
The move comes on the eve of the inauguration of a new president, the reputed hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose unexpected election has caused concern in Europe and the US.
Under an agreement last November with Britain, France and Germany – negotiating with Iran on behalf of the EU and with US backing – Tehran pledged to freeze all uranium enrichment activities pending the outcome of talks.
This week the EU troika is to present detailed proposals offering Iran security and military guarantees against attack as well as trade benefits and supplies of technology and nuclear fuel for a civil nuclear programme, provided Tehran forfeits its right to enrich uranium. It was unclear why Iran opted to jeopardise that at the last minute.
Yesterday’s escalation of the dispute alarmed western diplomats and left the Europeans scrambling to decide whether to break off almost two years of delicate talks with Iran.
“It will be very difficult not to respond to this,” a European diplomat said. Another diplomat following the negotiations said: “It’s part of the normal pattern of Iranian behaviour, stretch things out and then pull back at the last minute.”
The angry letter to the IAEA from the Iranians accused the Europeans of orchestrating “prolonged and fruitless” negotiations and said the EU offer to be tabled this week would be “totally unacceptable”.
The UN inspectors played for time, telling Iran that they would need a week to install monitoring equipment at the Isfahan plant before operations could resume. In Tehran last night, it was reported that the Iranians agreed not to a week’s delay, but two days.
Iran maintains that the uranium conversion work at Isfahan does not constitute enrichment, an argument dismissed by the Europeans on the grounds that the only purpose of the converted uranium gas is for later enrichment into fuel for nuclear power stations or into fissile material for nuclear warheads.
While diplomats and analysts ultimately expect the EU-Iran negotiations to fail, there was an air of panic yesterday that the talks could collapse sooner than expected. Ambassadors and senior officials in Vienna were cancelling and rescheduling holidays on the assumption that there would be an emergency IAEA meeting which could send the dispute to the security council.
The IAEA chief, Mohammed ElBaradei, appealed to Iran not to imperil the negotiations with the EU “at this critical stage”.
For two years the Europeans have resisted US calls to take the row to the security council but promised the Americans to end that resistance if the talks broke down. The US and the Europeans are convinced Iran is embarked on a clandestine nuclear bomb project.