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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.'

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Before giving up the crown jewels of a potential nuclear deterrent, experts say Iran expects some kind of guarantee that it will not be attacked.

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"The question is: How much of that [Iran rejection] is negotiating in the bazaar, and how much of that is true?" asks Joseph Cirincione, head of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, who returned last week from a nuclear conference in Tehran that included a visit to an Iranian conversion facility at Isfahan.

He says that, while there needs to be give and take on both sides, "That is exactly what many in the administration don't want to do - for some, the whole point is to overthrow the regime," he says. "So you really have a problem: The radicals in Tehran and Washington have the ability to torpedo any negotiations, by insisting on the right to enrich uranium on one hand, and insisting on the right to overthrow the government on the other."

While the ability to enrich uranium and actually having nuclear weapons aren't the same thing, some in Iran argue that they serve the same purpose.

"Atomic knowledge is modernity, progress; and we are living in an environment where that [enrichment] capability is a deterrent, a power," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University with close ties to the government. "For us it is much easier than to have a bomb."

He says Iran's supreme leader views the US offer as "humiliating." Iran expects, instead, sincere efforts to create a regional security bloc and perhaps a nuclear-free zone that destroys Israel's estimated 200 warheads. The London Sunday Times reported Sunday that Israeli commandos are training for a mission to destroy Iran's nuclear sites - and that the US would not stand in the way - if diplomacy fails.

"We joined the NPT to enjoy its fruits, and nuclear expertise is one of them," says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. "You can't just ask Iran to give up this right, and at the same time talk about regime change, sanctions, and military attack. It doesn't make sense."

There is "no chance" that Iran will dismantle its nuclear program, adds Hadian-Jazy, though there "can be a number of ways to produce a deal." Iran might accept real-time, joint international monitoring of its enrichment process, or agree not to manufacture certain nuclear material. Even limiting the range of missiles could be on the table.

Speaking in Venezuela on Saturday, Iran's president Mohamad Khatami said Iran was "willing to work with the world to give more security that Iran is not moving toward construction of nuclear weapons."

Echoing moderates in Iran, Hadian-Jazy argues that having nuclear weapons would increase Iran's vulnerability, by destabilizing the region with a new arms race. Any US military strike or severe sanctions would push many more Iranians into the "must-have the bomb" camp of the hard-liners, that Hadian-Jazy says is a small minority today.

And there may be other reasons for talks. Cirincione says he was struck by the "rather small" scale of the Isfahan facility, indicating to him that Iran has a "long way to go before they perfect these techniques, and assemble everything ... to enrich uranium for fuel, let alone for bombs."

The result may be that Iran is "more willing to give that up than their rhetoric suggests," says Cirincione. "Their sticking point may not be their commitment to enriching uranium, but the national pride that has been invested in this issue."