OpinionIran in the World PressNuclear plan could be enriching

Nuclear plan could be enriching

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The Times: In four months of extravagantly bad-tempered diplomacy, Iran’s new President has pulled off one small success. He has sidestepped a fight with the rest of the world tomorrow over his country’s nuclear plans. The Times

Reining-in Iran’s ambitions could also help others to explore alternative fuels

23 November 2005

By Bronwen Maddox

IN FOUR months of extravagantly bad-tempered diplomacy, Iran’s new President has pulled off one small success. He has sidestepped a fight with the rest of the world tomorrow over his country’s nuclear plans.

That shows a flicker of an instinct for self-preservation by President Ahmadinejad — one of the few compliments that it is possible to pay him since his election in June.

The reprieve, even if temporary, may have a wider benefit, too. It may sketch out an answer to a problem growing more obvious by the day: how to prevent the world’s renewed enthusiasm for nuclear power leading to the spread of nuclear weapons.

Tomorrow’s meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, will not now be a showdown at which the board of governors will refer Iran to the UN Security Council. That long-imagined climax, shuffled on from one quarterly meeting to the next over three years, will be postponed yet again.

European officials are unsurprisingly keen that this is seen as progress, not a climbdown. Up to a point. Britain, France and Germany, the “EU3”, who have taken on the burden of trying to negotiate a solution, have more countries on their side than ever — and more important ones.

A meeting in London on Friday between the EU3, the European Commission, the US and Russia was the first to include Chinese officials. China is important in putting pressure on Iran because it is a member of the IAEA board, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should the row get that far.

One senior European official said it was reassuring that there was “a great deal of common ground”. All the countries agreed that there should be a “significant gap in the fuel cycle” — Iran should not be allowed to master all the techniques for making reactor fuel, which would also give it the expertise for making weapons. The plan for the moment, then, is to push Russia’s proposal of a fortnight ago. Iran would be allowed to prepare uranium in the form of gas, but enrichment of uranium into reactor fuel and reprocessing of fuel rods (another route to a bomb) would be done in Russia.

We’ll see. Iran has avoided rejecting this, a move one European official called “tactically sensible”. But it also wants to press ahead with its enrichment plant at Natanz.

Both China and Russia have pressed Europe to give the Russian plan more time. It has little option but to concede. The drawback is that momentum for a UN referral may be lost.

Tomorrow, then, Europe will press only for a strong pledge of support from the IAEA board. It wants this to say that Iran will not be allowed to cross the “red line” of enrichment, and that its co-operation with the IAEA is inadequate. That is an understatement. The report by Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA Director-General, will give details of a document found in Iran on the casting and machining of uranium into “hemispherical forms”.

This describes a bomb by almost any interpretation. Yet, unfortunately for the European team, the document is not absolutely firm proof that Iran has been pursuing a weapons programme contrary to its denials. It does not prove that Iran has sought weapons — although it points that way.

The IAEA board will also weigh up US intelligence that Iran has been developing a warhead’ suggestive of a nuclear weapons programme.

European officials, more cautious in relying on US intelligence than before the Iraq war, say only that “if this is authentic, it is extremely worrying”.

At worst the Russian proposal has taken the heat off Iran. But at best it will have pointed the way to a solution for other countries wanting an alternative to expensive gas and oil.

Of the 30 countries that now have civil nuclear power, about two thirds import their fuel. The trick will be to persuade those joining the club to do the same.

The Iran problem is too urgent and intricate to be tackled as part of this wider question. But if Iran accepts the Russian plan, it may set the model for others to follow suit.

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