Saturday, April 01, 2006

Iran Minister Downplays Chances of Nuclear Face-Off

Maggie Farley, LA Times:
Iran's foreign minister said Friday that his country would not give up its right to develop nuclear know-how, but sought to play down the possibility of a confrontation over it.

In speeches for international audiences on Thursday and Friday, Manuchehr Mottaki stepped back from the escalation promised earlier by Tehran if Iran's nuclear issue was taken up by the United Nations Security Council. On Wednesday, the 15-member council demanded that Iran cease uranium enrichment within 30 days.

Although Mottaki made it clear that Iran had no plans to stop enrichment, he said that his country would not use oil as a weapon and that it would not withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He also renewed a proposal for an international nuclear fuel consortium in Iran to operate under strict supervision of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. READ MORE

Iran made the same offer last year, and it was rejected by the United States.

"I wish to stress that Iran's nuclear question can be approached from two perspectives: Cooperation and interaction or confrontation and conflict. I underline that my country has prepared itself for both possibilities," Mottaki said Friday in a speech to a Geneva security think tank that was broadcast by video link to a conference at Princeton University.

For the moment, Iran's strategy seems to be to issue a series of mixed messages that reflect domestic divisions, as well as an attempt to maintain the nuclear program while avoiding international isolation, experts say. In an apparent show of strength Friday, Iran's military announced it had successfully test-fired a radar-eluding missile with multiple warheads.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that the missile test underscored Iran's determination to pursue weapons, including nuclear arms.

"I think it demonstrates that Iran has a very active and aggressive military program underway," he said. "That includes both, as we've talked about before, efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, as well as delivery systems."

Iran's dual signals also exploit international uncertainty on how to move forward, say experts.

"It has been the general pattern over the two months to send a message that they are ready to talk, but at the same time, show a very resolute defiance," said M. Hadi Semati, a Tehran University professor who is a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "They are trying to send a signal that they won't concede but won't provoke, either."

Iranian President Mohammed Ahmedinejad has won popularity at home with his defense of Iran's right to develop nuclear technology and his hard-line statements about wiping Israel "off the map." However, his comments have raised concern, both in the international community and among moderates at home who fear that he is pushing Iran into a conflict.

Ali Ansari, an expert on Iranian history at Scotland's St. Andrew's University, said Iranian officials were taken off guard by the nuclear issue being referred to the U.N. Security Council.

"The report to the Security Council was not expected," he said. "The experience for three years had been that the West would back down."

In the Security Council, a show of unity is papering over divisions. Of the five permanent members with veto power, the United States, France and Britain are pushing for sanctions if Iran fails to stop uranium enrichment activities that could be used for producing energy or weapons. But China and Russia oppose sanctions without clear evidence that Iran is a threat.

The council asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to report in 30 days on Iran's compliance. A negative conclusion would pave the way for sanctions. But the agency's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Thursday that Iran did not pose an immediate threat and that sanctions would not be helpful. He urged all parties to tone down their rhetoric.

In his remarks to the U.N.'s Disarmament Conference in Geneva on Thursday, Mottaki expressed confidence that the Security Council did not have the unity to impose harsh penalties.

"We don't think there is a lot of chance of sanctions being put into place," he said.

In a meeting Thursday of foreign ministers from the permanent Security Council members and Germany, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly failed to muster support for targeted sanctions that would not affect ordinary Iranians, such as a travel ban and freeze on the assets of Iranian leaders. That leaves diplomats scrambling for alternatives.

One proposal floated by the International Crisis Group think tank calls for a three-phase, decade-long program in which Iran would suspend enrichment for a few years to build confidence, then do limited amounts under close supervision. The U.S. has rejected the idea, contending that once Iran gains the technology to do a limited amount of enrichment, it can easily replicate it and secretly operate a parallel enrichment program.

"The alternative is use of force, which people are talking about, but nobody really thinks is feasible or effective," Semati, of Tehran University, said. "It very much depends on the next few months and how the puzzle pieces fit, and how Russia and China react. But after Iraq, they have serious concerns that proliferation is a tool of other objectives, namely regime change."