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Britain Links Iran Trade to Nuclear Data

Economic sanctions could also be lifted if Tehran allows a closer look at its facilities. Response focuses on 'technical problems.'

July 01, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN -- Britain's foreign secretary urged Iran Monday to cooperate with the international community and allow more thorough inspections of its nuclear facilities to dispel suspicions that they could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking at a news conference during his brief visit, said Iran must "unconditionally and quickly" sign an additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that would permit unfettered inspections of its nuclear sites.

Straw, meeting with President Mohammad Khatami and other Iranian officials, tied to the signing of such a protocol the fate of a European Union trade pact, as well as the end of economic sanctions.

"If there is no signature, confidence will not be improved and the international community will be profoundly reluctant to lift the sanctions," he said.

Iran's leaders did not agree during Straw's visit to sign the protocol. Instead, Hassan Rowhani, head of the Supreme National Security Council, told Straw that Iran would invite the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to return to Iran to clear up "technical problems" over international inspections, according to the official Iranian news agency.

Washington has alleged Iran's civilian energy program is a cover for an effort to produce nuclear weapons. The discovery of several previously undisclosed nuclear facilities last summer has fueled that suspicion and helped Washington to press its concerns on Europe and Russia.

After an IAEA team visited some of those sites, it reported in June that Iran had imported and processed nuclear material without notifying the commission.

The Bush administration has said that it considers a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable, and that the IAEA's ability to monitor nuclear activities is compromised by Iran's unwillingness to sign the additional protocol.

Iran, despite growing criticism from the international community, has remained officially reluctant to permit full inspections. It also contends that the West is ignoring a portion of the nonproliferation treaty that grants signatories the right to pursue atomic energy for civilian purposes and obliges nuclear states to assist them in doing so.

Senior officials here say that they already allow adequate inspections of the country's nuclear program. But they appear ready to use the protocol as a bargaining chip for concessions on trade and other issues.

"When Iran takes new steps to be transparent, it naturally expects others to take positive steps as well," said Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's foreign minister.

Iranian officials told Straw that Iran would consider signing the protocol only if other countries committed to assisting Iran with civilian nuclear technology. Tehran is worried that as the United States, Europe and, increasingly, Russia, line up in opposition to its extensive nuclear program, the country will be left with costly facilities that sit idle without the technicians and fuel that must be imported.

Despite holding vast reserves of oil and natural gas, Iran insists it needs nuclear power to supply homes with energy, so that it can reserve its oil for export. Gholamreza Aghazadeh of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization met with Russian officials Monday in Moscow. Russia has been pressing Tehran to agree to full inspections, saying they could prove the intent of Iran's nuclear program is purely peaceful.

Moscow's position on Iran's nuclear program is critical, because Russia has helped Iran construct a nearly completed 1,000-megawatt, light-water reactor in the western port of Bushehr and has considered additional nuclear power projects.

In recent months, Russian officials have begun to back away from their previous position that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

"The positions of Russia and the United States on the issue are much closer than they seem," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said at a news conference in early June. "We need no convincing that proliferation of weapons of mass destruction should be prevented."

Russia's increasing willingness to view Iran's nuclear ambitions more critically helped the British foreign secretary intensify the pressure on Tehran.

Straw's visit comes at a strained moment in Britain's relations with Iran.

Though President Bush has branded Iran part of an "axis of evil," Britain has long advocated a policy of "constructive engagement" as the most effective means of encouraging the Islamic Republic to moderate its politics. That approach has seen limited measurable success with Tehran's support for anti-Israel terrorist groups and opposition to the Middle East peace process persisting unaltered.

On Iraq, Straw struck a more conciliatory note than the U.S. over the possibility of Iranian meddling. The occupation authority in Baghdad recently warned Iran against conspiring to undermine it.

Straw alluded to anxieties over "possible future actions" but said that, for now, Britain was "satisfied with the degree of cooperation received from Iran" inside Iraq.

Times staff writer David Holley in Moscow contributed to this report.

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