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North Korea nuclear deal may be inspiration for Iran

Times Staff Writer

Iran is quietly accelerating efforts to negotiate a deal on its nuclear program, using this week’s agreement to freeze North Korea’s program as a model.

In the North Korea pact, the Bush administration signed a deal that provides significant incentives to Pyongyang even before the country completely steps back from its nuclear weapons program. The administration’s willingness to agree to that probably will harden Iran’s demands that it too should get tangible benefits as part of any agreement, analysts in Iran say.

Those rewards could include guarantees for the security of Iran’s government, an end to economic sanctions and the right to continue developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

At the same time, some hard-liners in Iran appear to want to use North Korea’s example as an opportunity to toughen Tehran’s demands in the expectation that the United States eventually will be obligated to meet them.

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Some U.S. conservatives have criticized the deal with North Korea, predicting it will encourage Iran and other nations considering nuclear programs. At a news conference Wednesday, President Bush dismissed such criticism by John R. Bolton, his former United Nations ambassador.

Bush said he strongly disagreed with Bolton.

“I have told the American people, like the Iranian issue, I wanted to solve the Korean issue -- North Korean issue -- peacefully, and that the president has an obligation to try all diplomatic means necessary to do so,” Bush said. “So the assessment made by some that this is not a good deal is just flat wrong.”

But the debate in Iran now appears to focus on how hard Tehran should press for favorable terms.

“The hard-liners, perhaps impressed by North Korea’s achievement, are now inclined to be more resilient and more uncompromising,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of politics at Tehran University. “They say if North Korea could do it, why shouldn’t we? Why should we let the United States dictate to us rather than negotiate with us?”

Until this week’s pact, U.S. officials had insisted that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program and disarm before a deal could be reached. In the end, North Korea agreed only to begin disabling its nuclear facilities in exchange for about $400 million in aid and other incentives. For now, North Korea will keep its nuclear material, which U.S. officials think is enough to make eight to 10 bombs.

North Korea’s situation is different from Iran’s in several respects. North Korea has built and tested a nuclear bomb. Iran insists its program is for civilian power generation. U.S. and international leaders doubt Iran’s claim, and most intelligence officials think Tehran is at least two years from being able to build a nuclear weapon.

A U.N. Security Council resolution passed in December, with strong support from the U.S., demands a complete halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment activities.

Iran has signaled it might be willing to compromise on enrichment, either by limiting it, suspending it or operating centrifuges with an inert gas instead of uranium. Iranian negotiators say a genuine agreement can be achieved only through open negotiations without preconditions.

A subtle upping of the ante in Iran’s public position was evident shortly after the North Korea agreement was announced. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hossaini, declared Tuesday that Iran would never accept suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiation.

He had said a day earlier that many options, including suspension, were on the table.

Although hard-liners in Iran think the country can tough it out against the U.S., a broad swath of the political elite backs an effort by Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, to reach a compromise.

“This scenario has been at the back of the minds of some Iranian leaders: that if we reach a stage that we would be respected as an equal partner, then we could do real negotiations and reach a deal over our nuclear program,” Zibakalam said.

A source familiar with the negotiations said Iran had a four-part package that included security guarantees, continued access to nuclear technology and certain “political and economic” guarantees.

Nonproliferation experts suggested the guarantees would include a demand to drop U.N. sanctions and possibly the unilateral sanctions that the U.S. has had in place against Iran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In an interview Wednesday, Mohammad Kazem Anbarlouee, head of a conservative Islamic faction in parliament and the editor of Resalat, a hard-line newspaper, said Iran must insist on the return of $19 billion in Iranian funds intended for the purchase of U.S. weapons during the shah’s regime and never returned after the revolution.

“We don’t have any conditions right now, and we don’t accept any preconditions,” Anbarlouee said. “Because everything they asked us, we met. For example, they asked us to suspend our activities; we did that [in the past]. They asked us for U.N. supervision and visits, and we accepted this. We have nothing left. So Mr. Larijani will have some suggestions, not conditions.

“If they have some conditions, for example, about giving them some guarantees about not having nuclear weapons, they can tell us that. But if they want to ask us to suspend our nuclear activities for peaceful purposes, no, we are not ready for that.”

He said Larijani was authorized to discuss establishing a consortium of nations to produce enriched fuel along with Iran, a previously floated proposal.

In Washington, Democrats intensified their calls for the administration to negotiate with Iran. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said Bush would have to get authorization from Congress to attack Iran.

“It would be a mistake of historical proportions if the administration thought that the 2002 resolution authorizing force against Iraq was a blank check for the use of force against Iran without further congressional authorization,” Clinton said.

kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.


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