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Tehran raises threat in nuclear standoff

Iran upped the ante Monday in its nuclear conflict, warning that it will begin developing a full-scale uranium enrichment program if it is referred to the U.N. Security Council.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iran upped the ante Monday in its nuclear standoff, warning that it will immediately begin developing a full-scale uranium enrichment program if it is referred to the U.N. Security Council.

The message, delivered by Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, Iran’s senior envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, reflected Tehran’s defiance in the face of growing international pressure over its nuclear program. Enrichment can be used in electricity production, but it is also a pathway to making nuclear weapons.

Negotiations intensified ahead of a Feb. 2 meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation board to decide on referral.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, planned to travel to Moscow on Tuesday to discuss a proposal to have Iran’s uranium enriched in Russia, then return to Iran for use in the country’s reactors — a compromise that would provide more oversight and ease tensions.

A European official said the two sides would discuss the possibility of allowing Iran to conduct small-scale experimental enrichment itself if it agreed to move all industrial production to Russia.

The official, who demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential details of the negotiations, refused to say whether Britain, France and Germany — the key European nations behind the U.S.-supported push for referral — would tolerate such a deal.

Hoping to persuade referral
Those European nations and EU representatives also intensified diplomatic efforts, with diplomats telling the AP they were sending senior representatives to Brazil, Russia, China and Indonesia to persuade the key IAEA board members to drop their opposition to referral.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called for a step-by-step diplomatic approach in the standoff, saying she wants “the largest majority possible” for whatever course of action is decided upon by the IAEA.

While the Europeans believe they have enough votes to get Iran hauled before the council Feb. 2, they want broad support, including from key developing countries as well as skeptics Russia and China.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said “referral absolutely has to be made” on Feb. 2, while remaining vague on what action the Security Council would take — and when.

Iran removed IAEA seals from equipment Jan. 10 and announced it would restart experiments, including what it described as small-scale enrichment — a move that led the European negotiators to call for the Feb. 2 emergency board session.

No sanctions requested
The Europeans also began drafting a resolution calling for the Security Council to press Tehran to re-impose its freeze on enrichment and fully cooperate with the U.N. agency in its investigation of suspect nuclear activities — though it stops short of asking for sanctions.

Soltaniyeh, in comments to The Associated Press, warned against referral, suggesting such a “hasty decision” would backfire.

Whether Iran’s suspension of its full-scale enrichment program remains in effect “depends on the decision of Feb. 2,” he said. If the board votes for referral, he said, Iran would resume efforts to fully develop its nascent enrichment activities.

Iran insists its nuclear ambitions do not go beyond wanting to generate fuel, but concerns are growing that its focus is on making nuclear weapons.

An exchange of letters, made available to the AP Monday, reflected differences over Iran between IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and the United States, Britain, France and Australia — other key supporters of referral.

In a letter dated Friday, Gregory L. Schulte, the chief U.S. representative to the IAEA, asked ElBaradei to prepare a report on the “status of IAEA efforts to investigate indications of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.” Similar letters from the other countries were dated Thursday and Monday.

Full update to be presented in March
In a reply Monday, ElBaradei wrote that a detailed report would only be available in March, the next scheduled meeting of the IAEA board. Instead, ElBaradei — who had argued against the special Feb. 2 meeting saying he needed until March to probe Iran’s nuclear program — offered an “update brief” for the Feb. 2 meeting.

Separately, Merkel, speaking at a news conference with President Jacques Chirac, defended the French leader’s threat last week that France might use its nuclear weapons against state-sponsored terrorism or to thwart an attack involving weapons of mass destruction — comments that drew criticism from elsewhere in Europe and from Iran.

“We know that France is a country with nuclear capabilities, capabilities that exist exclusively for deterrence and, for me, there are no grounds there for criticism,” she said.

Chirac said he had simply delivered a reminder of France’s nuclear doctrine.

“The nature of the threat, the definition of a country’s vital interests, and thus the very nature of the response that might be employed, evolves with time,” he said.