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Preventing a Nuclear Iran Is a Delicate Task

Discovery of weapons- grade material adds momentum to effort. U.S. presses the U.N. to declare that Tehran has violated a treaty.

August 29, 2003|Maggie Farley and Douglas Frantz | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — Following a report by the U.N.'s nuclear agency that particles of highly enriched uranium were found in Iran, diplomats are debating how to apply enough pressure to keep the country in line with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty without pushing so hard that Tehran rejects international oversight altogether.

"If there is a lesson learned from North Korea, it is that we have to stop these countries before they get the bomb," a United Nations official said Wednesday, as talks on denuclearizing North Korea were underway in Beijing. "But how do you stop a country from reaching that point?"

The United States is pushing for the International Atomic Energy Agency to declare Iran in noncompliance with its treaty agreements at the organization's 35-nation board meeting Sept. 8 -- the first step toward possible sanctions.

The confidential U.N. report, which details new evidence of the presence of weapons-grade material at a nuclear facility in Iran and shows several reversals of position by officials there, has added momentum to the effort.

The European Union and others may now be convinced that there is a "pattern of noncompliance," a Western diplomat said. "We need to strengthen the IAEA's hand by reporting the pattern to the Security Council and pressing Iran to cooperate more fully."

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Thursday that his country was ready to start talks on an additional protocol to the treaty, allowing surprise inspections of any nuclear facility.

"We do not have enriched uranium, and we do not have a program to develop nuclear weapons," he told CNN during a trip to Japan to discuss oil field development.

Although U.S. and IAEA officials welcome the step, some worry that talks could drag on at a time when experts say Iran may be one to three years away from developing a nuclear weapon.

But if Iran does not prove to be immediately accommodating, the Security Council could impose tough economic and diplomatic sanctions, ban all nuclear assistance to Iran and even call for the return of all nuclear equipment received from other countries.

Many countries are still not convinced that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, diplomats say. Russia, China and about 10 developing nations on the IAEA board are focusing instead on parts of the report that note Iran has been more cooperative recently.

In the meantime, an analysis of another set of nuclear samples due to be completed in October may provide definitive proof of whether Iran has enriched uranium for military purposes.

Inspectors took the samples from Kalaye Electric Co. early this month, after Iran blocked their first attempt to visit the site in March. Inspectors noted major renovations at the facility, changes that officials suspect were an attempt to sanitize it before inspections.

Positive test results would show that Iran has enriched uranium or tested nuclear materials, both of which the government denies doing.

The results will be presented at the next board meeting of the IAEA in November.

"The central issue is: Has Iran enriched uranium in Iran?" said David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "The IAEA needs more time to determine that, but Iran really should provide that information themselves."

For the IAEA, the most important consideration right now is to keep Iran engaged so the agency can find the answers to urgent questions.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA director-general, has said privately that his first priority was to understand what Iran had been doing in recent years with its nuclear program, according to the Western diplomat. The additional treaty protocol will deal with future inspections, making it essential now to have a clear understanding of the Iranian program, he said.

"If they made some mistakes in reporting imports but are truly not trying to produce a nuclear weapon, the IAEA is the only one who can prove them innocent," a U.N. official said.

"The important thing is to pull them back from the nuclear threshold. If there is too much pressure, too many penalties, they may decide to withdraw from the treaty, and then there is no access at all."

Indeed, the IAEA's investigation has started the slow unraveling of Iran's story about its nuclear program.

"I count six reversals of position by Iran," said the Western diplomat. "This report is not a report of cooperation, but one that demonstrates the skill of the IAEA at getting to the facts. The only time Iran changed its position was when it was confronted by irrefutable evidence."

Iran claims that the traces of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium the inspectors found at the Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran came from contaminated components imported from another country. The IAEA has asked Tehran to identify the suppliers to check that claim, but Iran has refused.

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