Iran forges ahead on nukes

Talks for a deal with Russia broke off Wednesday. But Iran appears ready to defy the UN watchdog agency.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a Monday UN deadline approaches, Iran is expanding its controversial nuclear enrichment program - a calculated dare that crosses a "red line" for Western governments concerned about Iranian atomic weapon ambitions.

On Wednesday, talks between Russia and Iran - about a proposal to shift Iranian enrichment to Russian soil - failed to reach an agreement. Both sides agreed to meet again Thursday.

But pressure on Iran increased this week when details of Iran's new steps to enrich uranium were revealed in a confidential report by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamad ElBaradei. Iran plans to set up 3,000 centrifuges later this year.

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The report states that the IAEA "has not seen any diversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons," but lists a string of questions about Iran's nuclear program that it has yet to answer.

"The fact is, [the IAEA] has gotten more access [to Iranian facilities], and clarification has been better," says a Western official in Vienna who follows the IAEA closely. "But the actions that Iran has taken - to get enrichment up and running - that is clearly a provocation."

Iran says the material is to fuel a peaceful nuclear power program. Western capitals, led by Washington, believe that stated goal masks a desire to become a nuclear weapons state.

Iran says the material is to fuel a peaceful nuclear power program. Western capitals, lead by Washington, believe that stated goal masks a desire to become a nuclear weapons state.

Speaking in Afghanistan Wednesday, President Bush said, "Iran must not have a nuclear weapon. The most destabilizing thing that can happen in this region and in the world is for Iran to ... develop a nuclear weapon."

The 35-member IAEA Board of Governors voted on Feb. 4 to "report" Iran to the Security Council, for multiple disclosure violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Russia and China insisted that action be delayed until the March 6 meeting, to find a diplomatic solution.

The IAEA also requested that Iran cease all nuclear activities, to build confidence that its efforts are "exclusively peaceful."

But Iran's reaction has been in keeping with tough rhetoric from hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has vowed - like his reformist predecessor - that Iran will master uranium enrichment on its own soil, regardless of the diplomatic or military cost.

"It is partly a calculation, and partly a gamble," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Alameh University in Tehran and a former diplomat at the UN.

"From a technical standpoint, [Iran] is not in violation of the NPT, but the reaction in the Western world is that all enrichment activity must be suspended," says Mr. Bavand, reached by phone in Tehran.

The decision to renew enrichment work now "was provocative, actually. Iran did not need to be involved in these primary activities," says Bavand. "It creates a lack of trust, [and] does not [yet] have any relation to real enrichment. It's just a scientific pursuit."

The IAEA report notes that tests began Feb. 11, when Iran fed a single centrifuge with converted uranium gas. Acascade of 10 connected machines was fed with gas several days later; a week ago, a 20-machine cascade was being vacuum-tested. Some 3,000 are to be installed by the "fourth quarter of 2006."

The cascade is a chain of centrifuges in which each in turn enriches the gas.

Still, myriad technical problems have slowed past Iranian centrifuge efforts, and thousands of machines working in concert would be required to create sufficient quantities of nuclear fuel. Enriching to weapons-grade is even more complex.

"They have not done a whole lot. It was a calculated move to say to the Americans: 'If you keep pressing us, we can go all the way,' " says Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political scientist currently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "It was a signal: 'Don't push us into that corner.' "

Two years of talks with the EU, during which Iran suspended all nuclear activities, failed last August. Until the Feb. 4 decision by the IAEA, Iran had also adhered voluntarily to provisions of the Additional Protocol of the NPT, which permits snap inspections.

But after the IAEA decision, Iran gave notice that it would only continue with its minimal obligations under the NPT. At Tehran's request, IAEA seals were removed from centrifuge equipment, and video surveillance cameras taken down.

"Iran is taking a pretty deliberate position not to cooperate with the IAEA," says David Albright, a former IAEA weapons inspector and head of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington. "It's not a surprise, but it's sad, because it seems it will inevitably lead to a confrontation."

"They are beginning to think strategically," he says, such that UN weapons inspectors could pass information to the US military that "could help if there is an attack."

Though Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, visited Moscow for further negotiations Wednesday, few analysts expect a deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday sounded optimistic: "We think we can come to an agreement that a joint venture on the soil of the Russian Federation will be able to meet Iran's needs fully."

Gregory Schulte, the US representative to the IAEA, noted in a statement that Iran had already stockpiled 85 metric tons of converted uranium gas, that feeds centrifuges. "This is not a peaceful program," the statement read. "This is not innocent 'research and development.' "

A separate compromise has also been floated during the past year, in which Iran would maintain a token enrichment capability. That concept was taken a step further in a report published last week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Noting that zero enrichment in Iran is likely "unachievable," in Iran's political climate, it lays down a "delayed limited enrichment" plan that would recognize Iran's "right" to enrich uranium at home, but delay the program by up to seven years.

"Both sides inevitably will protest that this plan goes too far," reads the ICG report. "[T]he West because it permits Tehran to eventually achieve full nuclear fuel cycle capability ... and Iran because it significantly delays and limits the development of that fuel cycle capability."

Such a compromise, the report suggests, would be cemented by intrusive IAEA safeguards, limited levels and types of enrichment, a US security guarantee not to use force against Iran, and the threat of UN sanctions.

Such a deal would be a "very bad compromise," says Albright of ISIS. "If you allow 500 [centrifuges], and they master that, they will want 5,000. You have to have the confrontation now, and see what happens. Not a year from now."

The likely shape of that confrontation remains unclear. Action by the Security Council is uncertain, though if it leads to sanctions they would most likely be applied gradually.

Iran has been working to avoid Security Council sanctions, but may also be figuring that it can withstand any step. "They believe they can stand up to the pressure," says Semati, at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "Whether that is reality of not, that is the perception. They want to change the framework of negotiations."

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