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Iran Defends Nuclear Plans

Tehran, in new round of verbal sparring with the U.S., says it will never abandon its program. Bush urges the world to take a united stand.

September 26, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The United States and Iran appear headed for a new round of verbal brinkmanship over Tehran's nuclear program and the war on terrorism, deepening the divide between the two countries despite both capitals' ongoing interest in renewing a diplomatic dialogue.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is strictly for generating energy, but the U.S. and other nations suspect that Tehran is trying to develop atomic weapons and have urged it to allow new inspections.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Thursday that Tehran would never consider ending its nuclear program.

And Iran would agree to surprise inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency only if Iran receives guarantees that the United States will not make further demands, he told journalists at a breakfast gathering.

Backed by the U.S., the International Atomic Energy Agency has demanded that Iran agree to surprise inspections by Oct. 31. Kharrazi called the request "untimely and immature" as well as politically motivated.

The issue of appearing to accede to U.S. demands is now so controversial in Iran that Kharrazi said his government is under pressure from "some powerful people" not only to reject new inspections but to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

For now, he said, Iran is resisting walking away from the agreement.

U.S. officials have said that if Iran pulls out of the treaty, it could trigger a confrontation with the United States and possibly U.N. sanctions.

"It is very important for the world to come together to make it very clear to Iran that there will be universal condemnation if they continue with a nuclear weapons program," President Bush said Thursday in remarks to reporters.

Bush discussed the Iran nuclear issue with world leaders at the United Nations this week and will take it up with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin this weekend at Camp David.

So far, Bush said, "the response was very positive. People understand the danger of the Iranians having a nuclear weapons program."

The testy words from both sides came amid reports that U.N. experts have found additional traces of weapons-grade enriched uranium at a second Iranian facility. Inspectors already had reported finding such highly enriched uranium traces in two samples taken from a nuclear facility in Natanz, in central Iran.

The second set of traces were discovered at the Kalaye Electric Co., a small complex of buildings in a suburb northwest of Tehran. The IAEA went to Kalaye in March and again in June but was refused full access to the site.

Eventually, the IAEA was permitted to take samples, but only after Iranians had cleaned up the site and done some construction, which they said was remodeling so it could be used for another purpose.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the second discovery of traces "part of a long-standing pattern of evasions and deception to disguise the true nature and purpose of Iran's nuclear activities."

But Kharrazi said the traces of highly enriched uranium must have come from second-hand equipment purchased to enrich uranium for its power plants.

"The source has to be outside Iran. Some of the components we imported from outside dealers were contaminated," he said. U.S. officials say the equipment came from Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.

Kharrazi said Iran was "surprised" by the earlier IAEA findings at Natanz and has nothing to hide.

"Enrichment is not illegal as long as it is not for weapons," he added. "We have no program to enrich uranium beyond what we use for power plants."

The foreign minister added that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has forbidden the production of nuclear weapons as haram, or prohibited on religious grounds. The government of President Mohammad Khatami also believes that producing weapons of mass destruction is not in Iran's interest because it would not improve security -- and could increase the country's vulnerability, he added.

Beyond the nuclear matter, Iran and the United States face a brewing standoff over the war on terrorism. Kharrazi, who is in New York to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, said his government would not provide information about Al Qaeda operatives captured in Iran or otherwise cooperate with the United States on the issue until Washington cracks down on the Moujahadeen Khalq, an armed Iranian opposition group headquartered in Iraq.

The Moujahadeen Khalq is on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist groups, and its political offices in the United States have been shut down. But many of its fighters are still allowed to move around Iraq, Kharrazi said.

Bush administration officials concede that the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has not fully confined or disarmed members of Moujahedeen Khalq. Nor has it deported anyone to Iran, even though Washington wants Tehran to take such steps with Al Qaeda operatives detained in Iran.

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