Thu, Oct 23, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Washington remains wary of Iran

HARD LINE US experts argue there is no way to safely cooperate with Iran on nuclear energy that would not run the risk of abetting Tehran in its bomb-making

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

US officials are skeptical about a EU initiative to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear programs but it may help President George W. Bush avoid another crisis ahead of the 2004 US election.

While describing Iran's agreement on Tuesday to suspend its uranium enrichment program and allow nuclear inspections as a sign of progress, officials and experts in Washington said it was too soon to know if a worsening dispute would be defused.

Much depends on whether Tehran makes good on its promises ahead of a Nov. 20 meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of directors, they said.

"For them to comply, the Iranians are going to have to make some painful admissions about their various nuclear programs. It's going to be very difficult for them to admit they have been lying to the IAEA for so long," one US official said.

If Iran meets its commitments, some officials said Washington may resume tentative talks on bilateral issues with Iran that were suspended earlier this year. The two countries have not had formal diplomatic ties for two decades.

But if Iran reneges on the new nuclear commitments or does not go far enough, US officials said they would continue demanding the IAEA find Tehran in non-compliance of its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations and refer the matter to the UN Security Council, where sanctions could be imposed.

US hard line

"I think if these nuclear questions are outstanding on Nov 20, the European powers will vote with us to send this to the Security Council and declare Iran in non-compliance," one US administration official said.

But another official said Iran may have made enough perceived concessions to persuade key IAEA board members to oppose the US effort.

Convinced that Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration has pressed a hard line, insisting the IAEA formally declare Tehran in violation of international obligations and send the issue to the security council.

But the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany -- on a visit to Tehran on Tuesday -- won Iran's promise to allow snap inspections of its nuclear sites and to freeze its uranium enrichment program -- a suspected prime source of nuclear weapons fuel.

The three EU countries, adopting a less rigid stance than Washington, recognized Iran's right to develop a nuclear energy program and held out the prospect of future technical help.

Some US officials had opposed the mission as a distraction but after it went ahead they put the best face on it, hoping that after giving Iran a last chance to reform, the Europeans would be more inclined to support the US demand for stronger punitive action.

Early problems

The difficulty in dealing with Iran -- which as an NPT member is allowed to have nuclear power but not nuclear weapons -- ?was apparent immediately the Iran-EU was disclosed.

While an Iran-EU statement said that Tehran would suspend its disputed uranium enrichment program, Supreme National Security Chief Hassan Rohani was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying his government would not abandon the program.

If all the Europeans sought was a suspension of Iran's program, that just kicks the "diplomatic can" down the road, said Henry Sokolski of the Non-proliferation Education Center.

The US and Europe agree Iran's nuclear weapons program is a danger. But while the Europeans would still let Tehran have nuclear power plants for generating electricity, the US administration is opposed or at best divided on this point. Bush has said he would never tolerate Iran having nuclear weapons.

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