Iran on Monday defied European and American threats and resumed processing uranium, setting off a new confrontation with the West over its nuclear program.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy called Tehran’s decision to restart uranium conversion “grave and troubling” and a “clear violation” of a 2004 agreement reached in Paris under which Iran had pledged to freeze nuclear activities while it negotiated with European nations.
The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, was expected to meet today to discuss the issue. The board could refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for consideration of sanctions, but it seemed unlikely that it would do so now.
Although Iran says its nuclear activities are aimed purely at generating electricity, the U.S. and other Western nations fear it is using the program as a cover to build weapons. After months of discussions, Britain, France and Germany made an offer to Iran last week aimed at resolving the dispute.
The Europeans proposed providing Iran with a guaranteed source of fuel for its civilian nuclear plants and offered other economic incentives. In return, Tehran would have been required to forswear the sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle technology that could be used to produce bombs.
On Monday, Iran delivered a blunt, unsigned communique to the British, French and German embassies in Tehran rejecting the deal.
“The proposal is extremely long on demands from Iran and absurdly short on offers to Iran, and it shows the lack of any attempt to even create a semblance of balance,” said the Iranian statement, delivered by Pirooz Hosseini, a senior Foreign Ministry official.
“It amounts to an insult on the Iranian nation for which [France, Britain and Germany] should apologize.”
Douste-Blazy said the tone of the Iranian letter was “particularly alarming and contrary to the spirit of the dialogue we have had with Iran for the past two years.”
After delivering the letter, Iran started feeding uranium ore concentrate into machinery at its conversion plant at Esfahan, the first step toward producing enriched uranium as fuel for nuclear power plants or for use in weapons. Although Iran allowed the U.N. nuclear agency to put monitoring cameras in place before the uranium conversion began, it did not wait the 24 hours usually required for the cameras to be tested, said Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency’s director-general.
To many observers, the breakdown between Iran and the Europeans came as no surprise. Iran has consistently refused to relinquish its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 to enrich uranium and has emphasized that its nuclear freeze was only temporary while talks continued with the Europeans.
But Tehran had grown increasingly impatient as the freeze neared the one-year mark and the Europeans made it clear they would not accept an enrichment program.
Iran had asked the IAEA to seal portions of the Esfahan plant after it agreed to suspend uranium conversion under the Paris agreement.
Eight days ago, it asked the IAEA to remove the seals. The agency said Monday that Iran had not restarted all parts of the conversion plant.
With Europe and the United States in accord over the need to keep Tehran at the negotiating table, the IAEA’s 35-member board was to meet today in Vienna to discuss its response.
Two European diplomats said Britain, France and Germany would propose a resolution urging Iran to halt conversion activities and resume negotiations but making no threats should Tehran refuse.
“In Vienna, we aim for a simple text, something short and snappy,” one diplomat said. “It will call on Iran to maintain the [nuclear] suspension.”
The idea is “not to slam the door completely” but to leave the Iranians an opening “to go back to reason,” the second diplomat said.
The Bush administration supports the European negotiating effort and is consulting with its allies on a response, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. A second State Department official declined to comment on whether the United States was satisfied with the text of the Europeans’ proposed IAEA resolution.
European and U.S. officials have warned Iran that if it converts uranium, they will seek to have Iran’s case referred to the Security Council.
But it is not certain that the allies have the votes on the IAEA board for such a referral. The governors almost invariably make decisions by consensus, although under the rules of the organization, they can decide to hold a vote. Two weeks ago, Western diplomats in Vienna concluded that they could not muster even a simple majority to refer the Iranian matter to the council.
In the past, the Bush administration has urged the Europeans to push a tough resolution against Iran that it hoped would win a majority -- if not unanimity -- but the Europeans have been reluctant to do so, a U.S. official said.
The Europeans are betting that IAEA board members will be unhappy with Iran’s decision to proceed with uranium conversion in the face of the European proposal to facilitate Iran’s access to civilian nuclear power under strict nonproliferation rules. But to try to build consensus, they will propose the more gradual approach of first asking the Iranians to come back to the table.
Ereli stressed that U.S. officials wanted to refer Iran to the Security Council unless it made a verifiable deal with the Europeans. But he avoided saying that Washington would seek a referral immediately. The diplomatic language appeared designed to give the Europeans maximum negotiating room.
But the Iranians are testing the U.S. and Europe, waiting to see how much pressure the West can bring to bear at the IAEA, said George Perkovich, who analyzes the Iranian nuclear situation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“It’s ‘Let’s see what the other guy’s got. Let’s test it,’ ” Perkovich said, noting that Tehran could back off if it found international reaction too negative. The wild card, he said, is “in the IAEA -- how much is the U.S. going to bully and bribe other states?”
Within the atomic energy agency, a crucial problem for the West will be articulating a set of rules acceptable to other developing countries that already have or may wish to develop nuclear power, analysts said.
Brazil, South Africa and other nations that may want to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle may worry about the precedent they would help set by requiring Iran to give up that technology. But the Europeans hope that these countries, as well as Russia, will be willing as a first step to endorse a resolution calling on Iran to halt uranium conversion and return to the negotiating table.
Even if the U.S. and its backers overcome the objections of other aspiring nuclear countries to referring Iran to the Security Council, it would be difficult to win agreement within the U.N. to penalize Iran for its nuclear programs. China, which is generally opposed to international sanctions, could block such a move, as it has done in the case of North Korea.
Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Iranians are permitted to convert and enrich uranium. But they are taking a calculated risk by breaking the Paris agreement while complying with the letter, if not the spirit, of the IAEA safeguards, said Sharon Squassoni, an expert on weapons of mass destruction and proliferation at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
“They’re really dancing on the edge,” she said. “They’re very savvy on what they can and cannot get away with, and I think the IAEA is cognizant of that also.”