Iran refuses to halt nuclear program

Monday, September 13, 2004

BERLIN -- Iran's refusal to give up uranium enrichment -- and banish suspicions it seeks nuclear arms -- set the stage Sunday for confrontation before a U.N. atomic watchdog agency, with the United States lobbying to have Iran taken before the Security Council for possible sanctions.

Washington appeared unlikely to get its way immediately at today's meeting in Vienna, Austria, but its stand was bolstered for the longer term after European allies agreed to set a November deadline for Iran to meet international demands to suspend uranium enrichment and clear up other concerns about its nuclear program.

In a draft resolution prepared by France, Germany and Britain, the three European powers warned of possible "further steps" by November, the next meeting of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors.

Diplomats said "further steps" was shorthand for referring Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council if the Tehran regime hindered the IAEA's nuclear probe or if it refused to suspend uranium enrichment.

A top U.S. official said the Bush administration hoped for "a peaceful and diplomatic solution" in its effort to ensure Iran does not obtain atomic weapons in violation of its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

During a visit to Israel, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said Security Council sanctions were "not inevitable," but suggested they were likely.

He also hinted that all options remained open for dealing with Iran. "We're determined that they're not going to achieve a nuclear-weapons capability," he said.

Iran's government remained defiant ahead of the Monday meeting.

Speaking in the Iranian capital Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said his country would not give in to demands that it abandon uranium enrichment -- a process with applications in both generating electricity and making nuclear warheads.

Asefi repeated that Iran was willing to provide guarantees it is not seeking nuclear arms, assurances that have been dismissed in the past by the United States and its allies as inadequate.

Enrichment does not fall under Iran's obligations under the nonproliferation treaty, but the Tehran regime has been under international pressure for more than a year to fully renounce enrichment to counterbalance suspicions that arose from the discovery two years ago that it had hidden some nuclear activities for nearly two decades.

A U.S. official, who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, said Iran's defiance was helping Washington. He said Bolton, the U.S. point man on nuclear nonproliferation, was pressing the Europeans on Sunday to toughen their language in the draft resolution for the IAEA meeting.

With the Americans pressuring their allies, the draft drawn up by France, Germany and Britain was likely to undergo changes before being submitted to the board. Other countries also might submit proposals, and adoption of any resolution would require approval by two-thirds of the 35 board members.

The draft put the three European countries the closest they have been to the U.S. position on Iran. Up to now, they had resisted U.S. attempts to have Iran taken before the Security Council or even hint on a date for such possible action.

While the last IAEA board meeting in June censured Iran for past cover-ups and warned there was little time left to prove it didn't have a nuclear weapons program, the agency didn't impose a deadline or even indirectly threaten sanctions.

The draft by the three European powers suggested Iran had no wiggle room left in offering anything but full cooperation with the IAEA. It also emphasized the need for Iran to fully enact what has been a partial and eroding commitment to stop uranium enrichment and related activities.

Iran, which says it needs enrichment for electricity generation, agreed last year to freeze enrichment programs but later resumed testing, assembling and making centrifuges, a key component of such activities. Last week it confirmed an IAEA report that it planned to convert more than 40 tons of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride, the feed stock for enrichment.

Iran's original suspension pledge came in a deal with Britain, Germany and France but fell short of European demands that the Iranians scrap enrichment.

The Vienna meeting also is expected to hear a report on South Korea's recently reported clandestine uranium enrichment and plutonium extraction experiments.

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