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Iran hits softer note over nukes

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2007


Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran Sunday by telling a mass rally that anyone who gave up "one iota" of the controversial nuclear program would be the "most hated man in Iran."

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But a far more conciliatory – and unexpected – message was offered to Western security chiefs meeting in Munich by Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, who said that Iran is ready to resolve within three weeks all issues with the UN nuclear watchdog agency. "The political will of Iran is aimed at the negotiated settlement of the case and we don't want to aggravate the situation in our region," Mr. Larijani said.

Iran's nuclear messages come just days before a Feb. 21 deadline set by the UN Security Council for Iran to stop uranium enrichment or face broader sanctions than the limited restrictions imposed by a resolution in late December.

Larijani's words indicate that despite Mr. Ahmadinejad's tough rhetoric – or perhaps because of it – Tehran has grasped how sensitive Iran's position has become, analysts say. But diplomats reacted with skepticism, even as they tried to find a compromise on the issue of enrichment.

Larijani's offer came as senior US officials in Baghdad presented what they called a "growing body" of evidence of high-level Iranian interference in Iraq, with lethal weapons and agents. Showing bomb fragments and mortar fins to journalists, the intelligence analysts charged that sophisticated roadside bombs known as "explosively formed penetrators" (EFPs) had been made in Iran and smuggled into Iraq, where they have killed 170 coalition troops since 2004.

The US analysts further charged that special units of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, known as the Al Qods forces, had been actively plying Shiite militias in Iraq with training, cash, and high-tech explosives to use against US forces. Of five Iranian "diplomats" detained by US forces last month in Arbil, the officials allege, one is head of Al Qods operations in Iraq.

In Germany, Mr. Larijani said the nuclear issue could be solved with "constructive dialogue," adding that Iran's program – which Tehran claims is limited to creating nuclear power, not weapons – is "no threat to Israel. We have no intention of aggression against any country."

The Iranian nuclear messages come just days before a Feb. 21 deadline set by the UN Security Council for Iran to stop uranium enrichment, or face broader sanctions than the limited restriction imposed by a unanimous resolution in late December. Ahmadinejad has in the past rejected the sanctions resolution as a "torn paper," and Sunday ruled out any suspension. Rallygoers echoed the president, chanting that nuclear power is Iran's "right."

Iran has vowed to complete building a cascade of 3,000 centrifuges by the end of this year, and to begin "industrial scale" enrichment of uranium to fuel power plants, which could also – at least in theory – produce enough material for a one weapon within a year.

But problems have beset the work of two 164-centrifuge pilot cascades already operating; 50 centrifuges "blew up" last spring, Iranian officials say. Rumors circulated this week in Tehran that the president would announce that Iran was installing the first 1,000 centrifuges at the underground site of Natanz, to defy UN demands.

"Image is outpacing reality when it comes to [Iranian] technology. The schedule is politically driven," says Michael Levi, a nuclear physicist and nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"If Iran's near-term goal is to establish political facts on the ground, then the success of the technology is only of marginal importance," says Mr. Levi, who visited Iran last spring, a week after Ahmadinejad declared Iran a member of the nuclear club, after it produced a few grams of low-enriched uranium.

"People are too quick to infer that, because Iran is scaling up [enrichment] operations, that it has mastered lower-level operations," says Levi. "If this were a science fair project, that might make sense. But this is, number one, about shaping the international political environment."

Defiant tone, compliant actions

Senior Iranian officials had said to expect a major announcement of progress Sunday. But while Ahmadinejad made typically defiant tones, he also made it clear that Iran intended to follow safeguard rules as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.