Mon, Feb 14, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Iran stubborn on nuclear program

DEFIANCE Tehran rejected a European offer to trade its heavy-water reactor for a light-water one, as reports emerged that the US has been flying drones over Iran

AFP AND AP , TEHRAN AND WASHINGTON

Iran yesterday rejected a European offer aimed at limiting its nuclear fuel activities and warned the US against "playing with fire" in an increasingly bellicose standoff between Tehran and the international community.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi insisted Iran would not give up construction of a heavy-water reactor, which can be used to make nuclear weapons material, in exchange for a light-water reactor offered by the Europeans.

"We welcome such proposals but we will not under any circumstances replace our heavy-water research reactor," Asefi said at a press conference. "We will continue working on our heavy-water reactor," under construction at Arak, southwest of Tehran.

"We have told the Europeans to tell their American allies not to play with fire and the Europeans received that message perfectly well," Asefi said.

Britain, France and Germany are trying to convince Iran to dismantle an enrichment program the US says is part of a covert atomic weapons development, in return for economic and political rewards.

Diplomats said EU negotiators have offered to send a mission to help Tehran obtain a light-water research reactor in what would be the first concrete move towards rewarding it for abandoning uranium enrichment.

But Tehran's stance on the Arak reactor is likely to complicate the European task amid an escalating war of words between Iran and the US over the clerical regime's nuclear activities.

The Europeans say they cannot understand why Iran would want a plutonium-producing heavy water reactor when its whole enrichment program is based on uranium.

Iran insists its nuclear program is purely for civilian energy needs, but the US -- - less than two years on from its invasion of Iraq in March 2003 -- has hinted at the possible use of military force.

However Asefi declared: "We don't take Rice's threats seriously," referring to new US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who last week urged European negotiators to take a tough line with Iran and warned Tehran of sanctions if it refuses to renounce its suspected nuclear weapons program.

"Rice and US officials know well Iran's capabilities [of responding]," he added.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported yesterday that the US has been flying surveillance drones over Iran since last year to look for evidence of nuclear weapons programs and probe air defenses.

Citing three US officials with knowledge of the effort, the Post said the small, pilotless planes use radar, video, still photography and air filters designed to pick up traces of nuclear activity to gather details not accessible by satellites.

The paper quoted unidentified Iranian, European and US officials as saying the Iranian government, using Swiss channels in the absence of diplomatic relations with Washington, formally protested the incursions.

It reported that one US official acknowledged that drones were being used but said the Iranian complaint focused on manned military aircraft overflights, which the US denied.

The drones were first spotted by dozens of Iranian civilians in late December, setting off a flurry of local newspaper stories about whether the country was being visited by UFOs.

Word of the drones comes on the heels of stepped-up calls by the Bush administration for Iran to submit to international observation of its nuclear activity to ensure that it is not developing nuclear weapons.

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