Iran defends decision to resume processing at nuclear plant

European diplomats say Tehran will get one last chance to reconsider

August 10, 2005|By Sonni Efron and Douglas Frantz | Sonni Efron and Douglas Frantz,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - An emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency broke up yesterday with Iran vigorously defending its right to pursue nuclear energy programs and European diplomats saying they intended to offer Tehran one last chance to back down.

But there was no sign that Iran's new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intended to reverse his decision to restart the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan. Instead, Iran said it would break the seals on the mothballed areas of the plant now that IAEA cameras are in place to monitor the process.

The IAEA board of governors will meet again as early as tomorrow to debate what action, if any, will be taken. European diplomats circulated a mildly worded resolution that would call on Iran to retain the suspension on uranium processing and return to negotiations with Britain, France and Germany.

"There is no tough language," a Western diplomat said. "The words `Security Council' do not appear in the draft."

In comments carried by Iran's official news agency, Ahmadinejad said he was ready to negotiate. But he repeated Iran's complaint that Europe's latest proposal to end the nuclear crisis was "an insult."

"What the Europeans have forwarded to us does not look like a proposal at all," Ahmadinejad said in a telephone conversation with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

"They have talked in a way as if the Iranian nation was suffering from backwardness and the time was 100 years ago and our country was their colony," Ahmadinejad said.

France, Britain and Germany had proposed to guarantee Iran a supply of fuel for the civilian nuclear power plants Iran is building, as well as offer other economic incentives. In return, they demanded that Tehran forswear the sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle technology that could be used to produce bomb-grade fissile materials.

Two diplomats in Vienna said that the European proposal to Iran had alienated some of the nonaligned countries whose support would be needed to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, as the Bush administration and the Europeans want to do unless Iran agrees to keep its nuclear programs suspended.

Under an agreement signed in Paris in October 2004, Tehran agreed to halt all its nuclear activities, including uranium conversion at Isfahan as well as uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant. Both processes are necessary to produce the material needed for civilian fuel or a nuclear weapon.

"Many countries recognize that Iran has a right to enrichment and the [IAEA] board never said suspension has to be permanent," said the Western diplomat, who is familiar with the thinking at senior levels of the IAEA, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The European proposal went down badly in Iran because they see it as trying to rewrite the Paris agreement," by denying Tehran the right to process nuclear fuel.

Iranian Ambassador Cyrus Nasserri told the IAEA board of governors that Iran would restart the Isfahan plant but would maintain its voluntary suspension at Natanz. Nasserri argued that Iran had broken no rules and that the West had no legal right to refer it to the Security Council.

Analysts have predicted that the West will find it difficult if not impossible to muster the votes necessary to refer Iran to the Security Council, particularly if the IAEA governors stick to their tradition of making important decisions unanimously.

A second diplomat, from an Asian country belonging to the nonaligned movement, indicated the hurdles the United States and the Europeans will have to overcome to budge some IAEA board members.

"Our position has been that Iran has a legal right to enrich uranium," the second diplomat said. "They made mistakes in the past, but those mistakes do not strip them of that right.

"There is fear among our members that if the Europeans and Americans can take away Iran's right to enrichment, they can do it to the rest of us when the time comes."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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