Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bracing for Penalties, Iran Threatens to Withdraw From Nuclear Treaty

Nazila Fathi, The New York Times:
Iran's president warned on Saturday that Iran could withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if international pressure increased over its nuclear program.

His threat was a significant escalation of the government's previous position that it would only stop complying with spot inspections of military installations and sites it has not declared to be part of its nuclear program. The warning also raised the specter that Iran was considering following a strategy set by North Korea three years ago.

In a speech to tens of thousand of demonstrators who had gathered to mark the 27th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also staked out a broader path of resistance if penalties are imposed against Iran.

Evoking the possibility of penalties and international ostracism, he insisted that the country would continue its nuclear activities and urged Iranians to brace for tough times.

"The Islamic Republic has continued its program within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the nonproliferation treaty," he said in the speech, which was broadcast live on state television. "But if we see that you want to use the NPT regulations to deprive us of our rights, know that the people will revise their policy in this regard."

"I ask our dear people to prepare themselves for a great struggle," he added, evoking the possibility of international penalties. "Fasten your seat belts and pull up your sleeves." READ MORE

In interviews in recent days, American and European officials have said they have been looking for signs that Mr. Ahmadinejad's government might abandon the nonproliferation treaty.

American officials and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, have said that the treaty provision allowing countries to renounce it, with just 90 days' notice, constitutes a major flaw in the effort to keep nations from becoming nuclear powers.

That provision essentially allows nations to build up a civilian nuclear infrastructure under the protection of the treaty, and then convert it to military use as soon as the country abandons the treaty.

"It's the obvious hole in the treaty, and the Iranians may choose to exploit it," one senior American official said this week, before Mr. Ahmadinejad's speech. "From their perspective, the North Koreans didn't pay much of a price."

The Central Intelligence Agency has estimated that the North Koreans have produced fuel enough for six or more weapons since they left the treaty three years ago. But those are rough estimates, based more on the country's ability than knowledge of what they have produced, and it is unclear whether that fuel has been converted to weapons. Iran is further away from that ability.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Robert Joseph, the State Department official in charge of fighting nuclear proliferation, said that "a nuclear-armed Iran with this leadership does represent an existential threat to the state of Israel."

"We ought to make very clear not only that we find that repugnant," Mr. Joseph said, "but that that has policy significance, that that hardens our view, that we and the entire international community must band together and prevent this regime from acquiring nuclear weapons."

But he said he had no clear idea of when Iran might obtain a weapon.

The governing board of the atomic energy agency passed a resolution this month to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible penalties over its nuclear program. But the resolution gave Iran until March to halt its atomic research and development work.

On Thursday, Secretary General Kofi Annan also called on Iran to freeze those activities and pursue a proposal by Moscow to enrich Iranian uranium in Russia.

But in his speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad again discounted proposals by Europe and Russia that countries could sell enriched nuclear fuel to Iran rather than have the country produce it itself.

"According to international regulations, every country that sells aircraft to other countries is required to sell its spare parts as well," he said. "For 27 years you have refused to give us aircraft spare parts. How can we be sure that you will give us nuclear fuel?"

Iran immediately reduced its cooperation with the United Nations nuclear agency after the referral resolution, saying that it would end compliance with the nuclear treaty's Additional Protocol, which allows intrusive inspections of nuclear sites. The government also announced that it was preparing to resume the enriching of uranium, which it had suspended for more than two years.

But at the time, some Iranian officials said they would not leave the treaty, in part because they feared that would bolster the West's argument that Tehran was racing toward production of a weapon.

All of Iran's senior officials have emphasized the country's right to have a peaceful nuclear energy program. But on Saturday, statements by two senior Iranian figures continued to show that differences were emerging over how to handle international pressure.

At the same rally where the president called for complete resistance regardless of the cost, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is head of the powerful Expediency Council, said that "instead of relying on strength, we must try to fix the situation wisely," the news agency ISNA reported.

A former speaker of Parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, told demonstrators that officials must refrain from "imprudent" policies and must try to adopt dialogue and act wisely.

In his speech at the rally, Mr. Ahmadinejad repeated his much-publicized claims that the Holocaust was a myth, and he made reference to the wave of demonstrations in the Arab world over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in some Western newspapers.

"In some European countries and in America insulting Prophet Muhammad is acceptable," he said. "But questioning the Holocaust and formation of the Zionist regime is a crime. This is a myth with which the Zionists have blackmailed other countries and carried out their crimes for 60 years in the occupied territories."

He continued: "The real Holocaust is happening in Palestine where the Zionists are killing Palestinians. If you are looking for the crimes of Holocaust, find them in Iraq."

Angry protesters attacked the Norwegian, Austrian and Danish Embassies in Tehran in recent days over the cartoons. They also attacked the British and the French Embassies on Thursday with homemade bombs and stones.

David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington for this article.