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Iran rebuffs US over nuclear plans

The US offer was the first major diplomatic shift toward the Islamic republic since Bush cast it as part of the 'axis of evil.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2005


Iran's rejection of new US incentives to urge the Islamic republic to halt its nuclear ambitions could not have been on more prominent display.

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Painted across a banner 20 feet wide and nearly 10 feet tall, hanging directly under the pulpit during Friday prayers at Tehran University - and shown live on national television - were the words of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "We will definitely not stop our nuclear activities," the banner proclaimed. "It is our red line."

The US offer - to drop objections to Iran's entry into the World Trade Organization and permit it to purchase spare aircraft parts if it freezes its nuclear program - marks the first significant policy change toward Iran since President Bush labeled it part of an "axis of evil" in January 2002. But Iran dismisses the offer as "insignificant" and says the price will be much higher to get it to give up nuclear

technology that it legally has a right to pursue under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

"That offer ... is an assault on Iranian pride," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative newspaper, Resalat. "Some US politicians say: 'If we don't attack you, it's a favor.'"

Instead, Mr. Mohebian says there is room for real dialogue, but at a higher level: "The US should send the message: 'We are not your enemy.' "

Washington says Iran's civilian program is a cover to build nuclear weapons, and has ratcheted up its rhetoric in recent months. Tehran denies the charge and says it does not want nuclear weapons, but is creating its own nuclear fuel cycle for atomic energy. Two years of inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog have found a string of violations in a program kept secret for 18 years, but no evidence that Iran has sought to make atomic bombs. Britain, France, and Germany have been in negotiations to get Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. The US offer aims to join the Europeans in a united front; in exchange, the EU has agree to support taking Iran before the UN Security Council if talks fail.

Bush administration officials, after conducting regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq - military campaigns that have brought US troops to Iran's borders east and west - have repeatedly made clear that they oppose the clerical leadership in Iran.

The fact that the Bush administration would even consider European requests for incentives - much less opt for them - are "an enormous change" for this administration, says Ken Pollack, author of "The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America." Ironically, he says, the diplomatic route is also being favored by some US hawks. "The people who are arguing for military action [against Iran] are all in favor of taking it to the UN," says Mr. Pollack, a Mideast specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Their feeling is the UN will punt - the UN will never do anything - and that will provide the pretext for going to war."

Others see a similar result. "To me this seems like a transparent strategy: you offer Iran modest incentives that ... the US knows Iran will refuse," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, speaking from Washington. "Then you can take [Iran] to the Security Council with a clear conscience, knowing that you did offer incentives, but Iran wasn't willing to accept.

"Whether or not it's exaggerated, there is a concern among mullahs that the US is not going to rest until it's removed the regime in Tehran," he says. "If that's their mindset, then [Iran] pursuing this deterrent is paramount."