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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Iran Nuclear Effort Reportedly Slows

The pace of Iran’s effort to produce nuclear fuel appears to have slowed in recent weeks, the New York Times reported yesterday (see GSN, May 26).

European officials have described the findings by international inspectors to White House and State Department officials in an effort to push Washington toward bilateral talks with Tehran. Tehran might be trying to reduce tensions in the nuclear standoff, diplomats say.

“The pace is more diplomatic than technical,” said a senior European diplomat who monitors the Iranian program. “They could probably have gone faster. But they don’t want to provoke.”

Bush administration hard-liners, however, expressed skepticism over the reported slowdown.

“It could simply mean we’re not looking in the right places,” said one senior official.

Nuclear experts said the slowdown could mean Iran faces technical difficulties. Diplomats said Iranian engineers stopped putting uranium hexafluoride into centrifuge arrays after 12 days.

Iran has announced that its next goal is to install nearly 1,000 new centrifuges by the end of the year. Experts have said Iran has not made substantial progress in that effort, and International Atomic Energy Agency findings combined with Tehran’s statements have raised questions about its claims of nuclear breakthroughs, according to the Times. Inspectors found that Iran used material from China in its first enrichment effort because its domestic uranium supplies are reportedly full of impurities. Tehran also appears to operating inefficient centrifuges.

While Iran’s cascade worked, “It didn’t operate well,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

However, one European nuclear expert said such low efficiencies are not uncommon for initial centrifuge efforts, and that the results would likely be improved over time

Meanwhile, Russian National Security Council chief Igor Ivanov held a three-hour meeting with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. Officials in Tehran said they discussed the possibility of conducting uranium enrichment for Iran in Russia, and that Ivanov promoted a European incentives package aimed at ending Iran’s sensitive nuclear work. (Broad/Sanger, New York Times, May 29).

The Bush administration is pushing for significant financial sanctions on Iran from Europe and Japan, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

A Treasury Department task force developed the plan, which is designed to freeze the assets of every Iranian official, individual and entity the Bush administration considers connected to nuclear efforts, terrorism, government corruption, suppression of religious or democratic freedom and violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, according to the Post.

Internal U.S. assessments, however, indicate that the sanctions would not affect Tehran without also creating economic difficulty for Japan and Europe.

“I have been very open with people about the costs that could fall on them,” said Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

U.S. sanctions on Iran, which have been in place for decades, have not had much effect on Tehran. However, multilateral penalties would “isolate the Iranian regime” and see it “shunned by the international financial community,” according to one internal Bush administration memo.

The plan calls for the allies to freeze Iranian government accounts and assets in their respective countries, and Iranian officials who appear on U.S. blacklists would be barred from opening accounts, trading on foreign markets or obtaining credit, the Post reported.

U.S. officials said they hope the plan would be implemented if Iran refuses a package of incentives to be offered by Europe in coming weeks.

U.S. allies have not yet embraced the strategy, according to the Post. European officials said their reliance on Iranian oil, domestic legal constraints and the fear a new conflict in the Middle East made them reluctant to sign on.

“The sanctions could make Iran miserable, and Iran can respond by making everyone miserable back,” said one senior Western official. “In the end, the whole world is miserable and Iran gets to keep its nuclear program” (Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, May 29).

Foreign ministers from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana are scheduled to meet Thursday on the issue, Agence France-Presse reported.

Political directors from the six foreign ministries are also expected to discuss the pending European incentives package in a telephone conference today, diplomats in Vienna told AFP.

A Western diplomat said France, Germany and the United Kingdom “are working hard now to revise their package to respond to concerns, mostly from (Iranian allies and trading partners) Russia and China.” The diplomat said disagreements about the timing of a Security Council resolution and possible sanctions remained.

“There are still significant areas of disagreement” such as “the detail and commitment in the package to a specific menu of sanctions,” the diplomat said.

Possible sanctions include an arms embargo, according to a draft text seen by AFP (Agence France-Presse I/IranMania.com, May 29).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday that world powers are prepared to fully support Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy, AFP reported.

“We are prepared to guarantee Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy on the condition it answers the questions the IAEA has raised,” he said, according to Russian news agencies.

“We are ready and mutually interested in drawing Iran into full economic cooperation as well as in cooperation in regional security,” he said (Christopher Boian, Agence France-Presse II/Yahoo!News, May 29).

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced Sunday that Lavrov discussed the standoff with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Associated Press reported (Associated Press I/MosNews.com, May 28).

Meanwhile in Washington, there is growing debate within the Bush administration on conducting direct talks with Iran, the Times reported.

European officials said Rice and top aides are discussing the matter, but others indicated that she remains resistant to direct talks, fearing that such a move would show weakness and disrupt negotiations with Europe.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld oppose even informal bilateral talks, administration officials said.

Several former U.S. officials, however, have begun pushing for direct talks.

“Diplomacy is much more than just talking to your friends,” former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Times. “You’ve got to talk to people who aren’t our friends, and even people you dislike. Some people in the administration think that diplomacy is a sign of weakness. In fact, it can show that you’re strong.”

Solana and Germany Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have called on Rice to consider direct contacts, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue with Bush in Washington earlier this year, according to the Times.

“It’s a European aspiration for talks to happen,” said one European official. “Nothing is likely at the moment” (Steven Weisman, New York Times, May 27).

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Javad Zarif said Friday that Tehran could accept a limit to its uranium enrichment capability, AFP reported.

“This cap I think should be below 10 [percent uranium 235 in the fuel], meaning reactor grade,” he said. “Iran is prepared to put in place other measures to ensure fuel produced is not re-enriched and used for nuclear (weapons) purposes” (Agence France-Presse III/IranMania.com, May 26).

Iran also indicated today that it would consider Europe’s pending incentives package, AFP reported.

“We have to wait and see what kind of proposal will be made. We haven’t seen it yet. They have to submit it so it will be studied and we will see how it can be followed up,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.

Asefi added, however, that Tehran had no plans to freeze its fuel cycle work.

“Halting or stopping enrichment is not on the agenda,” he said (Farhad Pouladi, Agence France-Presse IV/Yahoo!News, May 30).

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said today that the overextended U.S. military could not attack his country, AFP reported.

“They can’t. The U.S. is not in a position to impose another crisis on taxpayers. There are a lot of difficulties in Iraq and Palestine. They are not in a position to create a new crisis in the region,” he said (Agence France-Presse V/Yahoo!News, May 30).

Foreign ministers from the Nonaligned Movement nations today were to express support for Iran’s nuclear program, AP reported.

The ministers “reaffirmed the basic and inalienable right” of all countries to develop, produce and use atomic energy “for peaceful purposes, without any discrimination and in conformity with their respective legal obligations,” according to a copy of one declaration obtained by AP.

The bloc also demanded that Israel accede to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, according to the draft (Vijay Joshi, Associated Press II, May 30).
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