Nuclear showdown

Iran's move to resume uranium enrichment threatens to derail its talks with the E.U. for the second time in 18 months.

Published May 12, 2005 2:36PM (EDT)

European powers are poised to call an emergency meeting of the board of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog after an escalating dispute with Iran about its nuclear projects. Iran appears about to renege on a six-month-old pact with Britain, Germany and France, which freezes all of its uranium enrichment activities -- a gamble that could see it penalized by the U.N. Security Council but also win a diplomatic victory in the battle of wits over its ambitions.

"This is all very disingenuous of the Iranians. But they are playing this perfectly," said a diplomat who has been following the two-year-old crisis.

Wednesday night, a senior Iranian envoy flew to Vienna, Austria, home of the International Atomic Energy Agency, with a letter from his government that diplomats anticipated to be formal notification that Iran was reneging on the agreement to freeze its uranium enrichment activities. The Iranian leadership was reported to have met Wednesday in Tehran.

Diplomats said Iran could start breaking U.N. seals on nuclear technology as early as Thursday. Tehran has told the IAEA it will promptly inform the agency of the decision and a letter is expected by the end of the week.

The European troika, which has been negotiating with the Iranians since last November, when a deal was struck in Paris, is expected to summon an emergency meeting of the 35-strong IAEA board for next week, at which the Americans will push to have the dispute taken to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

The Iranians are expected to restart conversion of raw uranium yellowcake into UF4 gas, a precursor to manufacturing UF6, which is turned into enriched uranium fuel. The degree of enrichment determines whether the fuel can be used for nuclear power stations or nuclear weapons.

The deal agreed to last Nov. 14 stipulated that Iran would freeze "all uranium enrichment-related activities."

Tehran is expected to declare that the making of UF4 does not constitute a breach of that pledge, a claim that will not wash with the Europeans or the U.S. "Restarting conversion of uranium would be a clear breach of the agreement," said the European diplomat.

If the Iranians resume the work at their uranium conversion plant in Isfahan, Iran, the resulting breakdown in E.U.-Iran talks will be the second in 18 months.

The E.U. states promised Iran that they would block a transfer of the dispute to the U.N. Security Council as long as there was a freeze on enrichment. But the Europeans also vowed to support Washington in referring the dispute to the Security Council should the talks fail. (On Thursday, Reuters reported, "the foreign ministers of the European Union's three biggest powers sent a toughly worded letter to Hassan Rohani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, warning that resuming potentially arms-related nuclear work 'would bring the negotiating process to an end.'") This could make for another showdown next week in Vienna, with the United States and the E.U. for the first time united in calling for Security Council action.

Sources in Vienna said, however, that there was little appetite on the IAEA board for imposing penalties on Iran. The board generally operates by consensus. And a non-European diplomat said the nonaligned countries on the board would "accept the Iranian argument -- that this is uranium conversion work and not enrichment work."

Nor is it clear what would happen if the dispute were passed to The Security Council, where China and Russia could veto sanctions on Iran.

Uranium enrichment is the key to obtaining nuclear weapons. The E.U. talks are aimed at getting Iran to abandon uranium enrichment and instead import low-enriched nuclear fuel for Tehran's civil nuclear program.

Recently Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time publicly supported the E.U.'s policy, saying that Iran should "abandon all technology to create a full nuclear fuel cycle" -- meaning uranium enrichment.

An emergency meeting in Vienna next week would reinforce the sense of worsening crisis over the problem. But diplomats said there was little chance of a quick resolution and that the issue would likely be deferred until the next scheduled board meeting of the IAEA in mid-June, a few days before Iran's presidential election.

By Ian Traynor

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