Iran rejects curbs on nuke plans

Defying UN agency orders, Iran starts to enrich uranium. Is it for energy or a weapon?

Defiance plays well in Iran. That's one reason why the Islamic republic is now resuming steps toward uranium enrichment - directly flouting a UN agency's demand to stop the development of technology that could be used in a nuclear bomb.

Iran's calculation also shows that Tehran has learned lessons from US policy toward other fledgling nuclear states such as North Korea to Pakistan. In short: The West is more respectful and generous with nuclear-equipped states, rogue or not, experts say.

Iran declared Tuesday that it has "successfully" begun large- scale tests to convert some 40 tons of uranium into hexafluoride gas needed for enrichment, a key step to making nuclear fuel for power plants - or for atomic weapons.

The decision follows Tehran's anger over the tough resolution passed by the 35-member board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna on Saturday, prodded by a hardline US stance and increasingly frustrated European nations, which requires Iran to halt all enrichment-related activities, to show good faith that its program is only for peaceful purposes.

Iranian leaders condemn as "illegal" the IAEA demands, which go beyond Iran's obligations under the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT permits nations to openly enrich uranium and control the nuclear fuel cycle.

"We clearly demand that our right to enrichment be recognized [as] our legal right," President Mohamad Khatami, a relative moderate in Iran's divisive political scene, said Wednesday. Doing so "will open the way for greater cooperation."

Speaking at a military parade Wednesday - during which he repeated Iran's rejection of nuclear weapons - Mr. Khatami warned that Iran would pursue enrichment "even if it leads to an end to international supervision."

"Tougher pressure [on Iran] from the outside sets in motion an internal dynamic that makes it very difficult for anybody to back off," says Hadi Semati, a political scientist from the University of Tehran, currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The hardening of positions by the US and Europe, and the threat that Iran will be referred to the UN Security Council, has unified everybody [in Iran]," says Mr. Semati. "This has become a showdown of might and steadfastness on both sides."

The IAEA resolution comes as talk grows of a possible military option carried out by the US or Israel. Security officials quoted this week in the Israeli press say a new purchase of 500 "bunker buster" bombs from the US could be used to penetrate underground Iranian facilities.

"Constant talk in Washington of a preemptive strike by America or Israel - that perception of a threat - would have helped convince [Iranian leaders] that it is not a good time to back off," says Semati. "In their mind is the strategic map: If Iran gives up, the Americans won't change [their demands], and if Bush is reelected, things could get tougher."

Even before Iran's secret centrifuge enrichment program at Natanz was revealed by an Iranian exile group two years ago, Washington accused the Islamic republic of hiding a weapons program. IAEA inspections have heard contradictory explanations and found several more elements of a sophisticated program, but no smoking gun proving a weapons effort.

The US pressure on Iran has been spearheaded by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, who testified to Congress in June that Iran is "dead set on building nuclear weapons." He quoted one estimate that Iran's Bushehr reactor, when complete, could annually produce enough plutonium for 30 nuclear bombs. But some experts argue that US pressure has forced Iran's hand.

"We're in an extraordinarily dangerous situation here," says Natalie Goldring, head of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington. "Iran looked at the US position on Iraq and North Korea a long time ago and decided it wanted to look more like North Korea than Iraq."

By labeling Iran part of his "axis of evil," Bush "cut what little ground there was from under the moderates in Iran. How could they argue that it was appropriate to negotiate with a government calling them the new 'evil empire'?" says Ms. Goldring. "Iran is not behaving well. But our government is giving them every excuse to make these decisions."

Iran's defiance may also stem from other nuclear examples. "Pakistan is looking like a country that developed nuclear weapons, then failed to suffer the consequences," says Goldring, of the nation that has become a key US ally in the war on terror.

Iran's defiance is playing well at home. Many Iranians feel that they have done enough by opening up to inspections and resolving most nuclear issues. The latest IAEA report earlier this month was the most favorable to date.

"The more I look around, I find only support for our right to have nuclear technology - it's allowed under the NPT," says a veteran political observer reached by phone in Tehran. "In fact, part of the public wants to go further, to the level of weapons."

"They certainly believe that no concession will be enough to stop the United States" going after Iran's nuclear programs, says Michael Levi, a nuclear expert at King's College London.

"They hear half the story," Mr. Levi says of Iranians that he heard recently while taking part in an Iranian TV news show. "They hear that unprecedented access was given [to IAEA inspectors]. Correct. But they don't hear that lies were presented [to the IAEA]. They hear that Iran is being treated differently from everybody else. True. But no one points out that Iran has acted differently from everybody else.

"I don't know whether Iran doesn't understand it, or just won't acknowledge it," says Levi. "This isn't about correcting technical issues. This is about fixing a deficit of trust."

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