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24 Oct 2009 09:04
Iran’s government said on Friday night that it saw a UN-brokered deal to export much of its enriched uranium “in a favourable light”, but asked for a few days’ extension of a UN deadline to make up its mind.
Under the deal, Iran’s stockpile would be reduced by three-quarters, potentially defusing a crisis in the Gulf. The deal had been agreed in principle by Iranian negotiators earlier this month, but Western observers said the delay in its confirmation reflected disputes and indecision at the top of the government in Tehran.
Diplomats said that Iran had also withdrawn from another commitment to hold talks next week on its enrichment programme, leaving the Obama strategy of engagement up in the air.
Iran’s state-run TV channel quoted Ali Asghar Soltanieh, ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, as saying his government looked on the deal favourably but would give its final response next week.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency’s director general, had set yesterday as a deadline for a decision.
But the agency stated on Thursday night that he had been told by the Iranian government it needed until next week.
Details were negotiated between Iranian, Russian, American and French diplomats at the agency earlier in the week, and approved by Washington, Paris and Moscow on Friday.
Any rejection by Iran would snub Russia, which had co-authored the plan and agreed to help enrich the uranium to become fuel in a Tehran research reactor for medical purposes. It would also mean that Iran was not honouring an agreement in principle with the US, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany reached on October 1 in Geneva.
The Geneva talks, heralded as a potential breakthrough, produced a separate agreement to meet before the end of this month to discuss Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium in violation of UN security council resolutions, but that agreement too looked in doubt on Friday.
Western negotiators had suggested meeting in Geneva on October 28, but in the past few days, Tehran has said it will attend only if uranium enrichment is not on the agenda.
Of all the progress made in Geneva, apparently the only surviving element is Tehran’s acceptance of UN nuclear inspectors at a new enrichment plant near Qom. The inspectors are expected to fly to Iran on Saturday and go to the Qom site on Sunday.
The plant, inside a mountain on a Revolutionary Guard missile base, has been under construction since 2006 according to Western officials, but its existence was not made public until last month, by Barack Obama at a G20 summit. Acknowledging its existence, Iran replied that according to the agency rules it was not bound to report the site’s existence until it was about to go live, and said it was a standby in case its main enrichment plant was bombed. ElBaradei flew to Iran on October 3 and won agreement for access.
The three-week delay was said by non-proliferation experts to be sufficient, hypothetically, for Iran to alter the site. Furthermore, it would not give the inspectors time to analyse samples at the site in time for the next agency report on Iran’s nuclear programme, due in mid-November.
“By the time they are available, probably for the first board meeting next year, the current sense of urgency will have been lost,” was the view put forward by Nima Gerami and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment Institute for Peace, in Foreign Policy magazine.
“In the longer term, Iran’s delay creates a bad precedent. It sets a corrosive example that Iran, or any other state, can invoke if it wants to delay IAEA access to nuclear facilities. IAEA officials regularly complain about their lack of legal authority. This delay erodes the authority that they already have.”
The IAEA inspectors will be trying to assess the purpose of the plant -whether it was intended to produce low enriched uranium for power generation, or highly enriched uranium for weapons—by analysing its lay out and studying blueprints and interviewing technicians. Their assessment of the extent of Iranian cooperation could prove critical in determining the international community’s next steps.
If Iran limits its cooperation over the Qom plant, while pulling out of the uranium export deal and rejecting negotiations on enrichment, the crisis will intensify once more. Should Iranian delays be publicly deemed to amount to deliberate deceit or defiance, a further wave of international sanctions again Iran becomes almost inevitable, targeting its energy sector. And lurking in the wings there is always the real or threatened possibility of Israel taking it on itself to resort to military action. - guardian.co.uk
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