Saturday, December 03, 2005

U.S. and Britain Seek Aid on Iran Arms

Steven R. Weisman and David E. Sanger, The New York Times:
In a new effort to pressure Iran to allow strict controls on its nuclear program, Britain and the United States are trying to persuade Russia and China to endorse their conclusion, derived from what officials call new evidence, that Tehran intends to build nuclear weapons, American and European diplomats said.

Until now, the effort to rein in Iran's nuclear program has occurred largely in the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, which has described a pattern of highly suspicious behavior by Iran. But the agency focuses on identifying possible diversions of nuclear material and has little weapons expertise.

The diplomats, who asked not to be identified to avoid any possible disruption of the delicate negotiations, say the new effort has been floated by Britain and endorsed by France and the United States, and seeks the declaration on Iran from the five major nuclear weapons powers that are the permanent members of the Security Council, which has the power to impose penalties.

The statement is the hoped-for result of arms specialists in China, Russia and France examining the evidence on Iran - including thousands of pages found on a laptop computer obtained by the United States last year - and concluding, as the United States and Britain have, that it points at least to an intent to build a weapon.

"If we could get China and Russia to agree that this bears all the hallmarks of a weapons program, it could have an enormous impact on Iran," said one senior European diplomat, because it might signal that if the issue reaches the Security Council, Iran could not count on Beijing or Moscow blocking action.

Russia and China have extensive energy and economic dealings with Iran and have argued that a confrontational approach will simply drive its government to walk away from international obligations on its nuclear program and oust the inspectors who are examining its facilities.

While Russia and China have declared that Iran should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, they have resisted American efforts to get the nuclear agency to refer Iran to the Security Council for possible penalties. A resolution passed by the agency's member nations in September said the case should be referred, but specified no time frame, and none was established at a subsequent meeting last month.

Running parallel to the effort to declare that Iran is trying to "weaponize" its program, despite its denials, is a diplomatic effort to support a Russian proposal that Iran be allowed to enrich uranium for its nuclear reactors - but only on Russian soil. Russian officials say this would guarantee that the material could not be used secretly for nuclear weapons, because it would be enriched only to "reactor grade."

Many aspects of the Russian proposal remain unclear. An American official said it could involve Iranian investment in a company based in Russia, but with the actual enrichment done elsewhere in the country, with no Iranian participation.

The official said the Russian initiative was "more of an idea than a proposal," and European officials said it was being discussed more as a way of involving Russia in the diplomacy than out of a conviction that Iran would accept it.

Eventually, the United States hopes that Russia will develop its idea, and that Britain, France and Germany will try to get the Iranians to resume talks on it, as part of a strategy to keep the talks going.

But Iran has so far declined to discuss the Russian proposal and has steadily insisted that it cannot surrender its sovereignty in developing enriched uranium for what it says is a peaceful nuclear program.

The British, as part of the effort to persuade Russia and China to join a declaration on Iran, are citing documents turned over to the nuclear agency by Iran apparently showing that it was offered technology to make metallic hemispheres from highly enriched uranium.

Iran maintains that it never acted on the offer, which came from the former Pakistani nuclear chief, Abdul Qadeer Khan. British and American officials say they find that explanation impossible to believe.

Britain, France and Germany have forged an ambitious effort to persuade Iran to abandon nuclear fuel activities that could lead to the making of a bomb, in return for economic and political incentives and also some form of security guarantees. But Iran has refused to give up its right to these activities.

"The most important aspect of our discussions is to broaden the support by countries like Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil," said a top European diplomat. "To do that, it's important that they feel all the diplomatic possibilities are exhausted before we step up the pressure."

The impasse with Iran is at a stage where "they are talking about talks," said an American official. That is, European officials say, they are trying to reach out to Iran to discuss informally the possibility of resuming negotiations on an eventual abandonment of its nuclear programs.

On top of these problems, European officials say that Iran's negotiating team is in some disarray, with evidence that the new president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is feuding with Iran's chief negotiator, Ali A. Larijani. READ MORE