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Iran unbending on nuclear hard line
By Safa Haeri

PARIS - Continuing its policy of confrontation, the Islamic Republic of Iran confirmed on the weekend that it had resumed building nuclear centrifuges, but at the same time said it was still holding back on enriching uranium, although this assurance is open to serious doubt.

"We still continue suspension on uranium enrichment, meaning that we have not resumed enrichment," Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharrazzi said at the end of talks with his counterpart from neighboring Azerbaijan, adding, however, that Tehran was not committed to any agreement with three European powers - the United Kingdom, France and Germany - on not building centrifuges.

An Iranian government spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, said that since the Europeans did not fulfill promises to close Iran's nuclear dossier at the energy agency's June meeting, Iran felt no obligation to abide by an agreement that demanded Iran suspend manufacturing and assembling parts used in nuclear activities.

Officials from the European Union's "big three" met with an Iranian delegation in Paris last Thursday and Friday, and emphasized their wish to see a halt to Iran's work on the nuclear fuel cycle.

Washington strongly suspects Iran is using a civilian nuclear program as a cover for a secret nuclear weapons project. It has been lobbying for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, to refer Iran's nuclear case to the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

According to contacts who spoke to Asia Times Online, the Iranians resumed enriching uranium on June 19, contrary to the official line that they had suspended this activity.

The weekend talks in Paris were to prepare the ground for a September meeting of the board of governors of the IAEA, which is expected to discuss Iran's program.

Neither the Iranians nor the Europeans would comment in detail on the latest talks, although some sources described them as "tense, but frank". A spokesman for the British and German foreign affairs ministries expressed "displeasure" at Iran's attitude, saying that they "do not understand the Iranian moves".

However, the hardline evening daily Keyhan, one of the mouthpieces of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, said on Saturday in Paris that the European trio demanded that Iran should agree to "never get out of the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]" and inform the UK, France and Germany "systematically and in an orderly manner" about its nuclear activities.

"According to a four-page document, Iran would reiterate Britain, France and Germany's right of concern over any deviation by Iran from its peaceful atomic activities to military purposes," the paper said under the title, "Does majlis [parliament] know?"

Observers told The Asia Times Online that considering the position of Hoseyn Shariatmadari, the editor of the newspaper, a high-ranking intelligence officer specializing in interrogating political and intellectual dissidents and an advisor to Khamenei, who has the final word on all major issues, "he has easy access to confidential and classified documents".

Iran was also required to cooperate with the UK, France and Germany for detente in the Middle East on the one hand and fighting terrorism in the region on the other, and also coordinate the control of all its imports and exports with the three above-mentioned powers, Keyhan reported.

"What the Europeans are asking Iran is tantamount to an unconditional surrender, worse than any of the agreements the Western colonial powers imposed on Iran under the dark eras of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties," Keyhan added, deliberately twisting history by not mentioning that the agreements it mentioned were imposed by czarist Russia on the Qajar kings.

The United States, Israel and some European governments claim that the final aim of the ruling Iranian ayatollahs is to use civilian nuclear projects for producing the atomic bomb, an allegation that Tehran rejects forcefully, insisting that the projects are mainly for producing much-needed electricity.

But they do not explain that if this is the case, why then not use natural gas to build electrical power stations, as Iran has the largest reserves after Russia and it is much cheaper, cleaner and safer than atomic processes, particularly one based on the aging and less reliable Russian technology that Iran uses?

"We were holding these [Paris] talks to reach further understanding and create more confidence in the direction that we are not seeking nuclear weapons," Kharrazzi said. "At the same time, we will insist on our legitimate rights," he added, referring to building nuclear-powered electrical plants.

"Each side was holding firm on its earlier and stated positions. It was deceiving, but no one was expecting any real breakthrough," the source told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.

Diplomats in Vienna revealed last week that Iran had broken seals inspectors the IAEA had placed on installations at the huge Natanz site, 350 kilometers south of Tehran, designed to enrich uranium hexafluoride, which, when processed in centrifuges, can be enriched to low levels for power generation or high levels for nuclear weapons.

Experts say that while one needed 2,500 centrifuges to produce military-grade uranium, Natanz could accommodate 5,000 units.

"The Iranians might be telling the truth that they are not making the atomic bomb, but the fact is that their civilian programs are so sophisticated that very quickly, maybe in less than six months, they could also be used for military purposes," another source told Asia Times Online on condition not to be named for security reasons.

Talking to reporters during his recent tour of the Middle East, US Secretary of State Collin Powell made it clear that US patience on the issue was running out, saying "it is more and more likely" that the matter will have to be referred to the Security Council.

"Now Iran has made it clear that they do not intend to abide by all of those commitments, my three foreign-minister colleagues [in Europe] are concerned about this and they are working on the problem, and I stay in close touch with them. But I have made it clear to them that we believe they must insist on their commitments being met. And they have to factor it into any other actions the European Union might be thinking of taking, either in the economic sphere, the political sphere or elsewhere. It is a very troubling development," Powell said.

Coupled with a flurry of recent statements by lawmakers from the conservatives-controlled majlis, as well as articles in hardline newspapers, Kharrazzi's ambiguous announcement reflects Iran's growing displeasure with Europe's "Big Three".

"The Americans and their European allies are preparing the ground for the silent overthrow of the Islamic Republic on the pretext of the Iranian nuclear file, using it as a pressure instrument," warned Keyhan.

While threatening that they would not ratify the Additional Protocol to the NPT, hardline members of the majlis also press the government constantly to defy both the IAEA and the Europeans, expel UN inspectors and resume uranium enrichment.

"The protocol - that allows nuclear inspectors to visit all Iranian nuclear sites, installations and projects at any time and without restrictions - had been imposed on Iran by the evil chain made of the IAEA, the Americans, Europeans and Zionist lobbies, despite all international laws and regulations, including the IAEA's rules," Keyhan wrote, adding that the final objective of Europe's "Big Three" was "nothing less than destabilizing the Islamic Republic".

Last week, Mohamoud Mohammadi, deputy chairman of the majlis' Foreign Policy and National Security Commission, warned that the ratification of the Additional Protocol was "conditional to the IAEA approving our use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes".

"The fear is that the Additional Protocol could be used as a tool for political pressure. If they treat our dossier in a purely technical fashion, then we will cooperate," he said, adding, "The majority of my colleagues in the parliament think this way."

And on Monday, the official IRNA news agency published an interview with Mohammad Mousavian, head of foreign policy of Iran's Supreme Council on National  Security, warning that "either Europe agrees to close Iran's file at the IAEA  and transfer nuclear technology to Iran - in response Iran will ratify  the Additional Protocol - or we cancel all previous agreements." He added that in the present circumstances, if the matter of signing the protocols were raised in majlis (controlled by the conservatives), it would be thrown out.

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.

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