/ 4 February 2010

Western powers wary of Iran’s nuclear U-turn

The United States and key allies urged actions as well as words in a wary response on Wednesday to Iran’s surprise U-turn on proposals to swap enriched uranium for nuclear fuel.

And there was alarm as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s apparent overture to the West on the nuclear issue was smartly followed by a rocket launch into space deemed by the White House “a provocative act”.

Ahmadinejad bamboozled his critics on Tuesday by suggesting that a deal struck last October envisaging Iran would send about 70% of its low-enriched uranium abroad was suddenly back on.

Conscious his remarks could simply to be timed to stave off new sanctions at an upcoming meeting of world powers, the White House urged Iran to contact the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN watchdog that brokered the original deal.

“If those comments indicate some sort of change in position for Iran, then President Ahmadinejad should let the IAEA know,” said deputy White House spokesperson Bill Burton.

Iran needs nuclear fuel to power its UN-monitored reactor, but the West fears its uranium enrichment programme is masking efforts to produce atomic weapons — claims vehemently denied by the Islamic republic.

The IAEA has proposed, in a bid to allay Western fears about Iran’s atomic ambitions, that Tehran ship out its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France to be further purified into reactor fuel.

Iran, which agreed in principle to the offer during talks with world powers in Geneva in October, later appeared to reject the deal and said it preferred a gradual swap of LEU with fuel — preferably on Iranian soil.

It had given the West until January 31 to respond to its counter-proposals.

Iran’s apparent change of heart received a cautious welcome from the P5+1 — UN Security Council veto-wielding permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany — which has been leading international efforts to engage Iran.

Britain’s Foreign Office said: “If Iran is willing to take up the IAEA’s proposed offer, it would be a positive sign of their willingness to engage with the international community on nuclear issues.”

But it said that desire must be made “clear” to the IAEA and Ahmadinejad’s comment “does not change” the need for Iran to hold talks with the P5+1.

“Iran has to make concrete commitments to the IAEA and a concrete answer in Vienna is the only measure on which it can be assessed,” German government spokesperson Ulrich Wilhelm said.

And French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said he would ask the United Nations to adopt a new resolution against Iran, warning it would include “strong sanctions”.

“The Iranian regime has not taken our offers of dialogue … the time has therefore come to react,” he said.

Stern warning
But hours after Ahmadinejad said on state television that Iran would have “no problem” sending its stocks of low-enriched uranium abroad, the launch of a new Iranian space rocket drew fresh international criticism.

“This announcement can only reinforce the concerns of the international community as Iran in parallel develops a nuclear programme that has no identifiable civil aims,” a French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

The launch on Wednesday of the Kavoshgar 3 (Explorer) rocket — a home-built satellite carrying a rat, turtles and worms — was Iran’s first experiment with such space technology.

The West suspects Iran of secretly trying to build an atomic bomb and fears the technology used to launch space rockets could be diverted into developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Iran strongly denies that either its space or atomic energy programs are intended to build a bomb.

The US said on Tuesday it hoped to consult with China and the other P5+1 powers in the coming days on the Iranian nuclear issue, but gave no precise date for a meeting.

If Ahmadinejad was simply paying lip-service to a deal to try to avoid stiffer sanctions then the move didn’t appear to have worked.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates issued an unusually stern warning on Wednesday that Iran faced the prospect of “severe sanctions” if it failed to answer Western concerns. — AFP