WASHINGTON - Defying European and U.S. threats, Iran resumed uranium processing yesterday, setting up a new confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy called Tehran's decision to resume uranium conversion "grave and troubling" and a "clear violation" of a 2004 agreement reached in Paris under which Iran had pledged to freeze nuclear activities while it held negotiations with European nations.
The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, was to hold an emergency meeting today to discuss the issue. The board could decide to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for consideration of sanctions, but it seemed unlikely that it would do so now.
While Iran says that its nuclear activities are aimed purely at generating electricity, the United States and other Western nations fear that it might be using the program as a cover to build weapons. After months of discussions, Britain, France and Germany made an offer to Iran last week aimed at resolving the dispute.
The Europeans proposed allowing Iran to run its civilian nuclear power plants by providing it with a guaranteed source of fuel and other economic incentives, but requiring Tehran to forswear the sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
Yesterday, Iran delivered a blunt, unsigned communique to the British, French and German embassies in Tehran rejecting the deal.
"The proposal is extremely long on demands from Iran and absurdly short on offers to Iran, and it shows the lack of any attempt to even create a semblance of balance," said the Iranian statement, delivered by Pirouz Hosseini, a senior Foreign Ministry official. "It amounts to an insult on the Iranian nation for which the E3 [France, Britain and Germany] should apologize."
Douste-Blazy said the letter's tone was "particularly alarming and contrary to the spirit of the dialogue we have had with Iran for the past two years."
After delivering the letter, Iran started feeding uranium ore concentrate into machinery at its conversion plant outside Isfahan, a first step toward producing enriched uranium for use as a fuel for nuclear power plants - or for use in weapons. While Iran allowed the U.N. nuclear watchdog to put monitoring cameras in place before beginning the conversion activity, it did not wait the 24 hours usually required for the cameras to be tested, said Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency's director general.
To many observers, the breakdown between Iran and the Europeans came as no surprise. Iran has consistently refused to relinquish its legal right under international treaty to enrich uranium and has stressed that its nuclear freeze was only temporary while talks with the Europeans were under way.
But Tehran had grown increasingly impatient as the freeze neared the one-year mark and the Europeans made clear that they would not agree to an Iranian enrichment program.
Iran had asked the IAEA to seal portions of the Isfahan plant after Tehran agreed to freeze uranium conversion under the Paris agreement. Eight days ago, it asked the IAEA to remove the seals. The IAEA said yesterday that Iran had not restarted all parts of the conversion plant.
With Europe and the United States in accord over the need to keep Tehran at the negotiating table, the IAEA's 35-member board of governors was to meet today in Vienna, Austria, to discuss its response. Two European diplomats said Britain, France and Germany would propose a resolution urging Iran to halt conversion activities and resume negotiations, but making no threats should Tehran refuse to do so.
The Bush administration supports the European negotiating effort and it is consulting with its allies on a response, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said. A second State Department official declined to comment on whether the United States was satisfied with the text of the Europeans' proposed IAEA resolution.
European and U.S. officials have warned Iran that if it converts uranium, the allies would seek to have Iran's case referred to the U.N. Security Council.
But it is not certain that the allies have the votes on the IAEA board for such a referral.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.