Iran bids to redefine nuclear limits

At the UN, Iran's president challenges the sway of Western powers on the issue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iran has hardened its determination to pursue its controversial nuclear program, brushing aside US and European threats of censure while trying to create a new diplomatic framework for nonproliferation.

Iran's newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared at the U.N. Saturday that nuclear power was an "inalienable right" for Iran and accused the West of practicing "nuclear apartheid" by depriving it of nuclear know-how.

Iran has increasingly seized the offensive in the standoff over its nuclear efforts. And it appears to be gaining ground as it casts its clash with the West as a spearhead for ending big-power dominance.

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"It is, of course, an issue of proliferation, but really it is about the nature of the [Iranian] regime, its politics, and its ambitions," says Shahram Chubin, head of research at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

The dispute masks a power play "on both sides," between Iran and the US, says Mr. Chubin, who runs an annual arms control course for diplomats working on the Middle East. "It's a question of who is going to dominate the regional order."

In his address, President Ahmedinejad accused the US of trying to divide the world into "light and dark countries." The US was failing to abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) itself, he charged, with a doctrine that includes preemptive strikes and developing a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons. And Ahmadinejad laid down a defiant marker.

"If some try to impose their will on the Iranian people through resort to a language of force and threat with Iran, we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue," the populist Iranian president said.

Within days of Ahmadinejad being sworn in as Iran's new president in August, Iran resumed its nuclear enrichment activities. Those had been voluntarily suspended for much of the past two years during talks with the EU3.

"The US only takes countries seriously that have reached a certain degree of technological and economic power (hence the cooperation with India)," says Bijan Khajehpour, an analyst and chairman of the Atieh Group of companies in Tehran. "This fact certainly motivates Iran to become ... more powerful."

Washington alleges that Iran's program is a cover for making atomic bombs, an accusation the Iranian president dismissed as a "pure propaganda ploy."

But intense lobbying to censure Iran by the US and Great Britain, France and Germany - the EU3 - appear to have failed.

Iran is due to face tough questions in Vienna Monday, when the board of the UN's nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets. UN inspections in Iran have turned up no evidence of a clandestine weapons program, but the latest report, earlier this month, said the IAEA could not rule it out.

Still, US and EU3 plans to have Iran referred to the UN Security Council for reporting violations and possible sanctions have unraveled, as Russia, China, India and others voiced opposition, despite direct appeals to leaders, in some cases, from President George Bush.

To dispel fears of Iran's nuclear intentions, Mr. Ahmadinejad spelled out acceptance of broader oversight, suggesting the involvement of third countries such as South Africa, or even private companies working with Iranian scientists. He also appeared to indicate that Iran was constrained by Islam in developing weapons. "[I]n accordance with our religious principles, pursuit of nuclear weapons in prohibited," he said.

But that did not convince Western doubters. A State Department official told reporters that the address was a "very aggressive speech, which would seem to cross the EU3 red line."

A British official called the speech "unhelpful," and French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said that referring Iran to the Security Council "remains on the agenda."

Iran bid for more support from nonaligned countries - and sought to counter the US push to isolate the Islamic Republic - when Ahmadinejad promised to share its nuclear knowledge with other Muslim countries.

"We believe that atomic energy is a blessing given by God; it is an opportunity given to all nations," the staunchly conservative leader said.

"Ironically, those who have actually used nuclear weapons, continue to produce, stockpile and extensively test such weapons ... [and] are not only refusing to remedy their past deeds, but in clear breach of the NPT, are trying to prevent other countries from acquiring the technology to produce peaceful nuclear energy."

The offer to share nuclear technology has "changed the dynamics," says Mr. Khajehpour, because "some Western players now see more reason to stop Iran's efforts to enrich uranium."

But the offer was likely "targeted at Iran's neighbors to give them assurances that Iran is not planning to deprive the region of nuclear technology."

Still, the offer has set off alarm bells in Western capitals. "That's red meat for anyone concerned with nonproliferation and security threats," and may prove to be "another bargaining chip to give away," says Natalie Goldring, at the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington.

But the inability of the US and EU to muster sufficient votes at the IAEA or Security Council to sanction Iran, for a combination of reasons, points toward a shifting nonproliferation framework.

"The US has very little leverage with potential proliferators," says Ms. Goldring. "When headlines in the US talk of preemptive attacks on countries without nuclear weapons, and that [the US] will improve its tactical nuclear arsenal, our leverage is zero or negative."

"We've given the message to Iran that we will not do a whole lot to stand in their way," says Goldring, noting that India and Pakistan, after detonating secret nuclear devices in 1998, survived sanctions and are now being courted by the US. "If I were in Iran, I would see a US tied down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mississippi, so Iran has some freedom of movement now."

The dispute has resulted in a diplomatic tug-of-war between the US and Iran.

Washington sought to enlist the support of India, China, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin. But all three urged caution - Mr. Putin, while standing beside Mr. Bush at the White House Friday.

In Tehran, says Chubin, "they talk about the rising East, the rising Asia - this is the old multipolarity: 'If we get Iran tied to Russia, China, and India, then the US would not be able to do anything.'"

"And the Russians almost say the same thing," adds Chubin, who visited Moscow earlier this month. "They do it politely, but they are constantly complaining about US influence.... The Russians are not going to annoy the Americans by supporting Iran, but they are not going to make it easy for them, either."

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