NEW YORK — The Iranian government is urging European officials to establish "new mechanisms" for verifying that Tehran is not developing nuclear weapons, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said in an interview Tuesday.
He said the goal of any agreement with key European countries was to prevent the Bush administration from taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council -- a move that could lead to punitive measures, including sanctions or, conceivably, military action against Iran.
Kharrazi made it clear that he hoped to enlist the Europeans to "help the process to be continued inside" the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. body responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran hopes the IAEA will eventually decide that it is in full compliance with the treaty and end concerns that the country is seeking to divert enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon.
Iran revealed two years ago that it had been secretly importing nuclear material and equipment over a period of 18 years, leading the Bush administration and many independent experts to assert that Iran is using its nuclear energy program as a cover for weapons development.
Iran denies such ambitions, and inspections by the U.N.'s nuclear energy agency have not provided conclusive evidence of an arms program, though IAEA officials say there is still "detective work to do to solve unanswered questions" about the origin of enriched uranium particles discovered in Iran.
Kharrazi said he had raised the possibility of negotiations for an inspection "contract" during recent meetings with envoys from Europe, Russia, China and nonaligned countries at the United Nations, and that there was support for the idea of working outside the Security Council.
"We are looking for some contract or mechanism that lets us continue with our right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, including producing fuel for power plants, and on the other hand, to remove the concerns of others and assure them Iran is not going to divert [uranium] towards a nuclear weapons program," Kharrazi said. Tehran was willing to consider "any kind of verification mechanism ... to make sure there is no secret program," he added.
The foreign minister insisted that the IAEA was allowed to inspect any of Iran's facilities with 24 hours' notice and that Tehran was cooperating fully with inspectors.
Kharrazi did not specify what he wanted to see in the contract. But he said that he invited other foreign ministers to create an agreement in the same spirit as the pact Iran made with Britain, France and Germany last year in which Tehran agreed to suspend its enrichment activities in return for European technical assistance with peaceful nuclear technology. The agreement fell apart, however, after a string of revelations heightened suspicions within the Bush administration and among outside experts that Iran was seeking to produce a nuclear bomb.
After the IAEA's most recent demand that Iran stop its enrichment-related activities, Tehran immediately said it intended to resume preparing 37 tons of yellowcake uranium for enrichment.
However, in an apparent attempt to maintain diplomatic leverage, Kharrazi emphasized that his government had yet to resume reprocessing precisely because of its earlier commitments to the Europeans.
Enrichment is not prohibited under the nonproliferation treaty, nor are the board's resolutions binding. But Iran's defiance bolsters American efforts to convince European countries that Tehran intends to develop weapons and must be stopped.
When asked what the difference between the current process and a new one would be, Kharrazi said he hoped to involve more countries in creating an alternative approach, thus broadening Iran's support.
"It's a question of confidence," Kharrazi said. "When countries are involved in developing some mechanism, they feel a part of it.... Naturally, it brings them more confidence."
Kharrazi added that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and nonaligned countries seemed to be open to the idea. "They are ready to negotiate on that," he said.
French and German diplomats confirmed that their ministers had discussed the issue with Kharrazi but said they wanted to see how the issue fared within the IAEA before committing to any alternative arrangement.
A senior State Department official said the Bush administration had no objection in principle to keeping the issue out of the Security Council.
"All Iran has to do is comply with the requirements of the [IAEA] board to cease enrichment," the official said.
Times Foreign Editor Marjorie J. Miller contributed to this report.