Iran's Political Impasse May Slow Nuclear Program

August 28, 2009|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,Tribune Newspapers

BEIRUT, Lebanon - -Iran's political crisis is likely to prevent it from making any swift move to ratchet up its nuclear program, said analysts and officials, potentially giving President Barack Obama and Western allies more time to grapple with the issue.

Yet the ongoing chaos over the disputed re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad further muddles the question of just who calls the shots in Tehran, and what a possible deal with the Islamic Republic would mean.

The Obama administration, concerned that Tehran is seeking to amass the materials needed to manufacture nuclear weapons, set an informal deadline of September for Iran to respond positively to an offer to discuss the matter rather than risk new economic sanctions.

"The infighting in Tehran has sent up a smokescreen that further confuses the picture from the outside, and the picture was plenty opaque to begin with," said a U.S. official in Washington who is involved in formulating nuclear policy and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Tehran has long insisted its nuclear research program is meant solely to provide electricity for its growing population. In recent years, its production of reactor-grade uranium has became a source of national pride, the symbol of the atom emblazoned on the back of 50,000-Rial bills.

But most Western arms-control experts believe Iran is at least trying to achieve the ability to quickly manufacture a nuclear bomb. And Iran continues to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it stop producing the enriched uranium, material which, if further refined, could be turned into the fissile material for a bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is set to take up its latest quarterly status report on Iran's nuclear program on Sept. 2.

In recent weeks, Iran granted IAEA inspectors access to a heavy-water reactor and parts of its enrichment facility after previously barring them.

That suggests an effort by Tehran to ease pressure on itself and on its most likely supporters at the Security Council, Russia and China, ahead of any new talks on sanctions.

While Iranian scientists have continued to enrich low-grade uranium during the nation's political crisis, news agencies have reported that Tehran has not taken steps to increase its processing capacity during the last quarter - although experts say that may have more to do with technical quirks than political decisions.

For now, most Iran watchers agree that Tehran will not only be unable to respond positively to the Obama administration's offer of talks, but also is in too much political disarray to make the major decisions necessary to build a nuclear weapon. Such steps would include further enrichment of its uranium supply to weapons-grade, or construction of facilities for speeding up the process.

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