Iran hits softer note over nukes

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."

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.

Inspectors of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the past week set up monitoring cameras in the Natanz enrichment facility, and canceled 18 cooperation programs with Iran on Friday that could have had dual civilian- military use, in accordance with the Security Council resolution.

"The problems [Iranians] are having don't seem to be showstoppers. Their centrifuges crash more than they did when the Dutch built similar machines ... [but] they are further along," says David Albright, a physicist and former IAEA inspector in Iraq, who has long followed the Iran case as president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

"Our 'worst case' assessment that they could have a bomb in 2009 hasn't changed," says Mr. Albright, noting that Iran would first have to make a definitive decision to go for a weapon – a step that Albright and other analysts believe that Iran has not yet made – and that "things would have to go well for them," which so far they have not.

"At some point, Iran has got to play its hand on how much it knows, if it is going to install these 3,000 machines this year," says Albright. "It's got to start hooking them together in cascades, and then turn them on and see if they work. I think we are going to learn a lot more in the next month or two about their capabilities."

When Iran first announced last spring that it had enriched uranium to 4.8 percent – high enough for nuclear fuel, but far short of the more than 80 or 90 percent necessary to make weapons-grade material – it declared plans to build its 3,000-centrifuge cascade by the end of 2006.

But technical difficulties and a fluid political dynamic inside Iran that has been partly influenced by surprise at the unanimous Security Council resolution against the Islamic Republic, are affecting Iran's nuclear timeline.

"The biggest impact on [Iran] is fear of what could happen in the future, and more pressure on countries not to invest in Iran. It's embarrassing; they are a very proud nation, and don't like being called a pariah by the Security Council," says Albright. "But is that going to slow down their nuclear program? I don't think so."

Rising tension with the West has been defined by Ahmadinejad's uncompromising language on the nuclear issue, and by denying the Holocaust and calling for the destruction of Israel.

The White House has also ratcheted up its rhetoric in recent weeks, accusing Iran of supplying anti-US militias and insurgents in Iraq with weapons. It has also taken concrete military steps – such as sending a second aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf, mine sweepers to key oil export routes, and Patriot anti-missile batteries to regional allies.

US officials are preparing a new Security Council resolution that would broaden economic sanctions if Iran fails to meet the Feb. 21 deadline. One addition could be holding Iran in violation of prohibitions of harboring terrorists, The Washington Post reports, because of several key Al Qaeda members officially held under "house arrest" in Iran since late 2001.

But there are growing signals in Iran, too, that pragmatic conservatives – and even Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who refused a meeting requested by Ahmadinejad two weeks ago – have been trying to rein in the president on foreign policy issues.

Ahmedinejad may be more isolated

Ahmadinejad has been further weakened by the failure of his allies in December municipal and Experts Assembly elections. Conservative newspapers have criticized him for bringing Iran closer to war, and more than 100 parliament deputies last week took him to task for foreign policy adventures.

"A lot of [Iranians] think the new sanctions on Iran and the new rising tension between Iran and the US is mainly because of Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements about the Holocaust and so on," says Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst in Tehran. "Everyone thinks the situation is more sensitive than before, and that they should be careful about their statements.... You can see that [Ahmadinejad] these days is more silent."

But a modest muting of such rhetoric does not mean that Iran's nuclear program has lost its popularity, or its utility to Iran's theocratic regime. A placard bearing Ayatollah Khamenei's image at the rally Sunday read: "Achieving indigenous nuclear science is an epochmaking and civilization-building move."

"If the US does not want to give the [Islamic] system security guarantees [that it won't attack Iran], they have no other choice in Tehran but to be as strong as possible," says Mr. Laylaz. "They are going to protect themselves by providing this [nuclear] shield."

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