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U.S. Backs Atomic Agency's Iran Plan

Washington will give Tehran a 'last chance' to prove it isn't developing nuclear weapons.

September 10, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — The United States said Tuesday that it was willing to give Iran a "last chance" to prove it was not developing nuclear weapons, endorsing a strongly worded proposal at the U.N. atomic energy agency that would require Tehran to open its doors unconditionally to inspectors by the end of October.

The proposed resolution, which must be approved by a majority of the 35 countries on the International Atomic Energy Agency's board, would require Iran to report fully on its nuclear activities, give unfettered access to inspectors and halt indefinitely all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. Enriched and reprocessed uranium can be used to fuel nuclear weapons.

The resolution, authored by France, Britain and Germany and backed by the U.S., will be voted on this week. Western diplomats said they had the votes to approve it as is but would be willing to make limited modifications to get maximum backing.

Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has insisted that its nuclear program is strictly for generating electricity. But several Western countries suspect that Tehran is undertaking a clandestine nuclear weapons development program. A report issued by the IAEA in August laid out a series of unanswered questions and made it clear that Iran had offered conflicting information about its facilities.

Kenneth Brill, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, made a strongly worded statement to the agency's board Tuesday, indicating that America is ready to say that Iran is in noncompliance with its commitments under the treaty. That is a serious charge and, if agreed to by other countries, would require the IAEA board to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which could adopt sanctions against Tehran.

However, other nations are reluctant to take such a dire step, and Brill said the United States had decided to stop short of pushing that course of action. In deference to "the desire of other countries to give Iran a last chance to stop its evasions," he said, the United States "has agreed today to join in the call on Iran to take 'essential and urgent' actions to demonstrate that it has done so."

Iranian diplomats have expressed dismay at the tone of the Vienna meeting. Iran's delegate to the session, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Tehran might sign the so-called additional protocol mandating new inspections but warned that the country might be unwilling to do so if "things were totally against Iran" at the meeting, Associated Press reported.

There is a heated debate in Iran about whether the country should agree to the additional protocol. Some politicians are urging the government to sign it to prove that Iran's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Others fear that the access would be taken advantage of and damage the country's national security.

Iranian diplomats have specifically rejected a clause in the proposed resolution now under discussion that demands Tehran stop uranium enrichment activities at the Natanz facility in central Iran.

This summer, inspectors found traces of enriched uranium at Natanz, as well as a large facility equipped with gas centrifuges, which can be used in the enrichment process. The Iranians initially said their centrifuge program was home-grown but then acknowledged that they had bought some equipment from other countries.

They now say that the particles of enriched uranium found by IAEA inspectors are residue from when the equipment was used by the foreign countries that sold it to them.

There are widespread suspicions that Pakistan was one of Iran's suppliers, but other countries may be involved as well, said a Western diplomat in Vienna.

President Bush has labeled Iran a member of an "axis of evil," and the administration has expressed increasing distress at the emerging information suggesting that Tehran has gathered the technology and expertise necessary to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran is widely viewed as a pivotal country both in the politics of the Mideast and Central Asia. It is of prime strategic interest to the United States because it is bordered by Iraq on the west and Afghanistan on the east.

Washington wants Tehran to stay out of the affairs of both countries as the U.S. attempts to rebuild them in a pro-Western fashion. However, Iran seems eager to make it clear that it will not be cowed by larger regional or world players.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, a career diplomat, used careful language at Tuesday's meeting but left little doubt that he wanted to see more compliance on the part of Iran and expected it by early November, according to participants.

While acknowledging that his inspectors had recently received more help and access in Iran than in the past, he said there was much "urgent and essential work" that still needed to be done. He described some of the responses as "piecemeal and reactive."

"The more transparency, the more assurance we can give ... is in the interests of both Iran and the international community," ElBaradei said.

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