Thursday, August 25, 2005

Iran seeking broader nuclear talks

Nasser Karimi, The Miami Herald:
Iran on Thursday called for more countries to join three European states in talks about its nuclear program, apparently hoping to bring in more sympathetic negotiators. The surprise call was part of Tehran's drive to win approval for what it says will be peaceful use of nuclear power.

The talks involving France, Germany and Britain suffered a blow earlier this month when Iran rejected the Europeans' central proposal - an offer of economic incentives in return for permanently giving up uranium development. Tehran also resumed uranium conversion at its plant in the central city of Isfahan.

Iran's new top nuclear negotiator, hard-liner Ali Larijani, said Thursday that more nations should join the talks.

"There is a serious question in Iran that asks why nuclear negotiations should be limited to just three European countries," he told state-run television.

Larijani didn't specify any nations but said his country would welcome negotiations with all 35 members of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency - as well as members of the Non-Aligned Movement, a bloc of 116 mostly developing countries.

The United States, which accuses Iran of seeking to develop atomic weapons, dismissed the proposal as a "typical tactic of the Iranian government designed to change the subject." In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the current format, involving the three EU nations, was the correct one and that Iran ought "to take the deal that is on the table."

Europe also responded coolly to Larijani's call.

Britain's Foreign Office said there was "no basis for negotiation with Iran until they respond" to an IAEA resolution adopted earlier this month that calls on Iran to suspend reprocessing activities at Isfahan. The EU countries called off a negotiating session scheduled for Aug. 31 because of the resumption of work there.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said France, Britain and Germany were not really alone in the talks with Tehran since they were acting on behalf of the 25-nation EU. READ MORE

The three countries "negotiate in the name of the (other) Europeans and we are fully transparent ... with our partners in the international community," he said. He added that the talks also are carried out "in close liaison" with the IAEA.

IAEA board member Russia did not address the Iranian call. But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday there was no evidence proving Iran has violated the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

"We have no grounds to believe the presence of such a threat has been proven," he said. "If a real threat to the non-proliferation regime emerges, we will look at it very seriously."

Russia has helped Iran build its first nuclear reactor, at Bushehr, and China has been increasing its ties with Tehran. Both would likely try to prevent any attempt to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions and use their veto power in the council to block any attempt to impose such punitive measures, Iranian political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand said.

Tehran says its program is only aimed at producing electricity and insists it has the right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to build a uranium development program.

Uranium is enriched by turning the raw ore into gas, which is then spun in centrifuges. If it is enriched to a low level, it can be used as fuel for a reactor; at a high level, it can be used for a bomb.

Bringing other nations into the negotiations would likely weaken what has been an unusually unified front by Europe and the United States, pressuring Iran to accept limits.

In an editorial broadcast Thursday, state-run radio said Iran needed new negotiating partners because Britain, Germany and France were not capable of concluding a deal by themselves.

In Vienna, diplomats close to the IAEA told The Associated Press that Larijani was expected in the Austrian capital on Friday for talks with IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei.

The diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were disclosing confidential information, refused to elaborate. But Larijani was expected to lobby for Iran's decision to resume uranium conversion at Isfahan and discuss a report ElBaradei is preparing for the IAEA's Sept. 19 board of governors' meeting that is expected to disclose new details on Tehran's experiments with small amounts of plutonium, a key component of nuclear weapons.

The visit appeared to have been decided very recently. ElBaradei had been due to attend a meeting in Copenhagen Thursday but organizers there said he canceled on short notice. IAEA officials declined comment.

Others on the IAEA board with their own nuclear programs might be sympathetic to Iran's arguments that it has every right to uranium development. Brazil and Argentina appear hesitant to subject Iran to restrictions on its nuclear program, worrying that they could face the same pressure one day.

Iran also previously has courted support for its nuclear program from Arab countries including Yemen, which is both a member of the IAEA board and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Iran's new ultraconservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said this week his government would draw up new proposals for negotiations. Iranian officials have made clear they expect the talks to focus on allowing Tehran to proceed with its program while setting up guarantees to ensure it is not developing weapons.