Iran's nuclear deadline
Ultimatum over US suspicion that Tehran is building bomb
Ian Traynor in Vienna, Dan De Luce in Tehran and Ewen MacAskill
Saturday September 13, 2003
The worsening international crisis over Iran's suspected nuclear bomb programme escalated last night when the UN set Tehran a deadline of 45 days to come clean on its nuclear activities.
Failure to comply by Iran, whose diplomats walked out of a meeting in Vienna yesterday in protest at the deadline, could lead to the imposition of UN sanctions.
Both the US and Britain suspect the Islamic Republic of secretly seeking to build a nuclear weapon, a charge it denies.
But the International Atomic Energy Authority, the Vienna-based UN organisation, yesterday called on Tehran to suspend all uranium enriched activities after traces of weapons-grade uranium were found at Natanz, a civilian nuclear facility.
Mohammed El Baradei, the IAEA chief, said the deadline and the terms of the resolution sent "a very powerful message to Iran to cooperate fully and immediately".
The crisis brings confrontation between Iran and the US a step nearer. The US has been lobbying the IAEA to take a tough line with Tehran.
Despute still being bogged down in Iraq, President George Bush yesterday signalled that the US was prepared to take action against any country it believed posed a threat to it.
The day after the second anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, Mr Bush said: "In this new kind of war, America has followed a new strategy. We are not waiting for further attacks on our citizens. We are striking our enemies before they can strike us again."
If Iran fails to meet the October 31 deadline for complying with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the IAEA is almost certain to refer the issue to the UN security council, which could then apply sanctions.
Iran, in turn, has threatened to review its membership of the IAEA.
The US, given the existing instability in Iraq and the Middle East, is likely to settle for sanctions. Mr Bush will be reluctant to engage in military action in the run-up to next year's presidential election.
The crisis is a setback for British diplomacy. The Foreign Office has been courting Tehran since 1997 and is disappointed with Iran's intransigence. There is also, privately, disappointment that Washington has opted for confrontation rather than constructive engagement.
Relations between Iran and Britain have deteriorated sharply recently. It emerged yesterday that the British embassy has been shot at three times in the past month, though only two of the attacks have been made public.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We regret the Iranian walk-out [from the IAEA]."
The walkout presents a quandary to the UN's nuclear inspectors. A team is due to go to Iran within 10 days and the resolution, passed without a vote yesterday, obliges Tehran to guarantee unrestricted access to sites the inspectors want to visit.
But the threat to break off cooperation with the agency may mean that the terms of the resolution cannot be met. Iran would then be declared in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and would join North Korea as an international pariah deemed to be building a nuclear bomb.
Western diplomats and IAEA officials expressed confidence yesterday that Iran would not sever links with the UN agency and would allow the inspections to proceed.
The resolution empowers Dr El Baradei to report to the IAEA in November. The US ambassador to the agency, Kenneth Brill, said that meant Iran had been given "one last chance" to prove its nuclear programme was peaceful.
The five-day meeting of the IAEA's board of governors, representing 35 countries, was sorely divided over how to deal with the Iranian dilemma. The compromise resolution, co-authored by Canada, Australia, and Japan and backed by the Americans, asked Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities, agree to snap UN inspections, and ordered Tehran to provide copious information to the inspectors by the end of October.
"We reject the ultimatum," said Ali Salehi, the Iranian ambassador, before walking out of the session. "My delegation wishes to have no part in this process or in this resolution."
While as recently as six months ago, the Americans were relatively isolated in pushing for tough action against the Iranians over the nuclear suspicions, the wealth of troubling evidence un earthed in recent months by the inspectors has produced a groundswell of support for the American position, including within the IAEA itself, and in distinct contrast to the rows over Iraq and whether Saddam Hussein had a clandestine nuclear weapons project.
Senior western diplomats and IAEA insiders say the suspect Iranian programme is much more sophisticated and advanced than anything achieved in Iraq, and believe that declaring Iran in violation of the NPT is warranted now. The Iranians have only recently disclosed that their uranium enrichment projects go back to 1985, rather than 1997 as previously stated to UN inspectors.
The result in Vienna represented a diplomatic disaster for Iran and its efforts to cultivate Europe as a counterweight to US influence.
For six years the reformist government led by President Mohammad Khatami has tried to defuse Washington's bid to isolate Iran by courting Britain and other European states. But European governments grew increasingly frustrated with what they considered Iran's evasive attitude towards the IAEA and its contradictory explanations about its nuclear activities.
More hardline voices in Iran will point to the ultimatum as evidence that Mr Khatami's conciliatory approach has only made the country appear weak. Conservative newspapers have called for Iran to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty altogether.
Pressure over the nuclear issue could lead the conservative clerical leadership to try to undermine the US occupation in neighbouring Iraq, or to rule out any handover of the al-Qaida suspects it admits are in its custody. http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,12858,1041307,00.html