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Nuclear Talks in Jeopardy, Europeans Tell Iran

Times Staff Writers

In a toughly worded letter, European foreign ministers threatened Tuesday to cut off negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program if Tehran made good on its promise to resume uranium conversion.

“I think this Iranian affair is very serious and that it could be the start of a major crisis,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Paris.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said that if Iran resumed conversion -- a first step toward enriching uranium for civilian use or a nuclear bomb -- France would seek to bring the matter before the United Nations Security Council. France, along with Germany and Britain, has been preparing to offer Iran a package of incentives to halt its nuclear activities.

An Iranian government spokesman said uranium conversion would be restarted because every sign had been that Europe was not prepared to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, Tehran’s primary concern in the negotiations.

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But Ali Agha Mohammedi of the Supreme National Security Council appeared to indicate in an Iranian television interview late Monday that his country would not break International Atomic Energy Agency seals on its shuttered uranium conversion plant at Esfahan until IAEA monitors were in place to oversee the process. The IAEA is concerned that nuclear material may be diverted if the seals are broken before surveillance equipment is installed.

“They must adjust their cameras and hold their debates about supervision. They must check the seals and so forth. When they finish what they have to do, then Esfahan will start its operation,” Agha Mohammedi said.

Meanwhile, Western intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program recently obtained by The Times indicates that the country may have agreed with the Europeans to suspend its uranium program in November 2004 only because the effort had been beset with technical difficulties.

The Iranians may be seeking to restart the conversion program because they think the major problems have been solved, officials and analysts said.

Two officials familiar with the process at Esfahan said Iranian scientists have had trouble producing a nuclear feedstock -- uranium hexafluoride, or UF6 -- of sufficient purity to run their centrifuges, the next step toward enriching uranium.

Although the Iranians have been able to produce small quantities of pure UF6, huge amounts are needed, said one official familiar with IAEA inspections of Iran’s nuclear installations.

Moreover, a third of Iran’s 1,200 centrifuges had been disabled by “crashes,” the official said. Fewer than 400 centrifuges have withstood serious testing in a process in which the machines spin at up to twice the speed of sound to separate radioactive isotopes and produce enriched uranium.

A U.S. official familiar with the matter also confirmed the centrifuge crashes.

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Analysts say that to mount a successful nuclear enrichment program, Iran probably would have to operate about 1,000 centrifuges in unison. Even with these technical difficulties, however, diplomats with access to IAEA findings said that Iran could have a centrifuge plant running in less than a year if it wanted to.

Iran insists that its enrichment program is intended purely to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. But the United States has accused Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian program. Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to enrich uranium, but the West wants Tehran to stop.

Western doubts about Iran’s nuclear intentions were heightened by remarks last month by its senior negotiator with the Europeans, Hassan Rowhani. In an interview with the conservative newspaper Kayhan, Rowhani said Iran had given up only those parts of its nuclear programs that were stalled for technical reasons, while redoubling its efforts on those parts that were not suspended.

Rowhani said Iran tried to cooperate “to the minimum extent, in order to suspend as little of our activities as possible.”

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“More importantly when a certain activity was suspended, during that period we would concentrate all of our effort and energy on other activities.”

When work at its two enrichment plants in Natanz was suspended, Rowhani said, “we put all of our effort into Esfahan. Now that Esfahan is in suspension, we are fixing other existing flaws.”

Analysts cast doubt on the veracity of some of Rowhani’s technological boasts but said the interview appeared to confirm some Western suspicions that the Iranians had agreed to negotiate with the Europeans only to stall for time, while keeping the issue out of the Security Council.

Given Rowhani’s comments, it is likely that Iranian engineers believe they have fixed the flaws at Esfahan and want to test the uranium conversion process -- even with IAEA inspectors watching, said George Perkovich, who follows Iranian nuclear issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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U.S. officials have been emphasizing the importance of Europe’s standing firm against what they see as an Iranian attempt to renegotiate the Paris Agreement of 2004, in which the government agreed to freeze its nuclear programs, including uranium conversion, while talks were underway over what economic and political incentives Europe would offer Tehran.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said Tuesday that the Iranians seemed to be “terribly impatient” with the course of the negotiations.

“This is all highly unusual in the diplomatic world, and it seems to us that Iran is determined to break the agreement,” he said.

The European letter to Rowhani on Tuesday was blunt and unequivocal.

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“Iran does not have any urgent operational need to produce fuel of its own, nor any other reason to resume activity at [Esfahan], if the intentions of its nuclear program are entirely peaceful,” said the letter, signed by the French, German and British foreign ministers and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

The Europeans promised to present a proposal for a long-term agreement for cooperation with Iran on political, security, technological and economic affairs by Sunday, but they said they would end talks if Iran restarted the plant.

“We would have no option but to pursue other courses of action,” the letter warned.

The Europeans said they would also seek a special session of the IAEA board of governors in the next few days “to discuss the way ahead.”

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Conservative arms control advocate Henry Sokolski hailed the Europeans for standing firm, but he said, “Everybody’s calling everybody’s bluff now.”

The Iranians are trying to force the Europeans to affirm Tehran’s right to enrich uranium, while the Europeans argue that uranium enrichment, even if permitted by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is not a necessary part of a peaceful civilian nuclear program, he said.

Although the current dispute with Iran appears to be over the technicalities of uranium processing, Sokolski said it was really a conflict over the international rules that would govern development of civilian nuclear power in the future. The Iranians are trying to prevent the rules from being rewritten or reinterpreted more strictly.

“They are not just gunning to get the bomb,” said Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “They are gunning to shoot down the rules so it will be very difficult for us to know when or if they have the bomb.”

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