Iran claims victory over Washington on nuclear issue

Thursday, October 23, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran -- With the European Union now in his corner, Iran's president on Wednesday described the showdowns over the country's nuclear ambitions as a diplomatic "boxing match" with the United States.

Iran is claiming victory in the latest round.

A promise to expand the bounds of nuclear inspections and suspend uranium enrichment -- made Tuesday after talks with foreign ministers from Germany, France and Britain -- is expected to secure Iran's immediate goal: keeping allegations of a secret atomic weapons program from reaching the U.N. Security Council.

But Iran also displayed its ability to work the diplomatic seams as part of a broader strategy to isolate Washington on the nuclear issues, experts said.

Iran -- facing an Oct. 31 deadline to prove its nuclear program is peaceful -- reached out to EU heavyweights that favor dialogue with the Islamic rulers. The tougher line favored by Washington suddenly appeared stalled.

'Boxing match'

"It's been like a boxing match with a powerful, unjust rival trying to sway world opinion," said Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami. "Now it has turned into a marathon run. The world has learned that we have been sincere."

President Bush, in Indonesia, called the Iranian pledges "a very positive development." But he also repeated the accusation that Iran is seeking the ability to make nuclear arms.

Among the many fears of the United States and its allies are Iranian nuclear warheads in range of Israel and a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Iran insists it seeks only energy and peaceful research from its nuclear program, including a Russian-built reactor expected to begin operation in 2005.

But Iran had been resisting the key demands by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency: an accord for unfettered nuclear inspections and a halt on enriching uranium, which is needed for reactors but can be highly enriched to weapons grade.

The reversal was linked to a European offer of greater cooperation on nuclear energy and nonmilitary technology.

Iran still must convince the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, that it has no weapons program. Failure could shift debate to the Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

On the fast track

Iranian officials, however, appeared to move fast after Tuesday's breakthrough announcement.

The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hasan Rowhani, said Iran would sign the protocol on expanded inspections before the next IAEA board meeting Nov. 20.

Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, told state-run television that all remaining questions by the agency will be answered by Wednesday.

The IAEA list includes the origin of weapons-grade uranium traces discovered at two facilities. Iran claims the equipment was exposed before it entered the country, but has not publicly identified the source.

The EU "showed the U.S. that global issues can't be resolved by war and destruction, but by dialogue. It's a victory for us, the EU and the international community," Salehi said.

Analysts also saw Iran exploiting the policy rifts between Washington and the EU.

"Iran played it carefully and got good results," said Sadeq Zibakalam, a political science professor at Tehran University.

"Iran's best position is to undermine the EU-U.S. alliance against Tehran," he added. "With the EU losing the game to the U.S. over Iraq, the Europeans didn't want to give away to the U.S. in Iran's case."

Ted Carpenter, a strategic analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, said only "superficial unity" binds the EU and United States on Iran's nuclear efforts.

"This could fall apart rather quickly," he said.

The latest promises have the backing of Iran's ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh.

But some long-range questions loom, including how long Iran will suspend uranium enrichment and how Israel may deal with Iran's nuclear advancements. In 1981, Israel warplanes bombed an Iraqi reactor suspected of being a potential nuclear weapons source.

Israel's military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, warned Tuesday that Iran would be able to produce nuclear weapons within one year if it completes its uranium enrichment program.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom visited Germany on Wednesday to discuss, among other issues, Iran's nuclear ambitions.

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