Iran Plans Defense of Nuclear Program

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

Iran is planning to mount a staunch defense of its nuclear energy program at an international conference beginning today and will insist on rights to the same technology afforded to all members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a senior Iranian official said in an interview yesterday.

The high-level counteroffensive, to be led by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, comes in anticipation of a tough speech the Bush administration is preparing to give today calling for international measures against Tehran unless it gives up sensitive aspects of its nuclear program.

M. Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, said his country's efforts are peaceful and well within its rights. Kharrazi, who will address the gathering tomorrow, will spend much of this week discussing the issue with diplomats from around the world.

The White House decided several days ago to send a mid-level delegation to the United Nations, where diplomats will review ways to strengthen the nonproliferation treaty. But efforts were underway late yesterday to persuade Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deliver the U.S. address today. U.S. officials did not rule out raising the profile of the delegation but said it would be difficult for Rice, who returned Saturday from Latin America and is scheduled to accompany President Bush to Europe tomorrow.

Conference organizers had hoped the crises with Iran and North Korea would remain in the background this week. But the hardening rhetoric and actions on all sides indicate the tensions are escalating and probably would dominate the forum.

Diplomats from more than 180 countries will spend the next month reviewing the treaty, which gives nations broad access to nuclear energy technology in exchange for pledges to forgo nuclear weapons. The deal, signed in 1970, also includes a commitment by the five original nuclear states -- the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia -- to eventually eliminate their stockpiles.

The treaty is considered one of the most successful arms-control agreements ever. But the basic bargain is often cited as its greatest flaw because countries can peacefully get a pathway to bomb-building and then leave the NPT without penalty, as North Korea did two years ago.

And although the NPT is credited with slowing the spread of nuclear weapons, it has not stopped proliferation altogether or led to the eliminations originally envisioned. Pakistan, India and Israel have not signed the pact, and there are fears that more countries could opt out. Several solutions have been offered to address the flaws, but there is no consensus on any. Delegates who have been preparing for the conference for more than a year still have not agreed on an agenda for the meeting.

As a result, the conference, which takes place every five years, is mired in turmoil and comes as tensions are gathering over Iran and North Korea. Yesterday, North Korea, which is now believed to have the means for at least six nuclear weapons, unnerved its neighbors with a missile test in the Sea of Japan. Over the weekend, Iranian officials said they could end a suspension of their once-secret nuclear energy program unless there is some progress in talks with Europe meant to resolve concerns about the country's growing nuclear capabilities.

U.S. officials, who discussed the White House's strategy, said they did not believe this conference would end with any agreements and instead braced for confrontation and criticism. Bush last week chose harsh language to describe his frustration with Tehran and Pyongyang. North Korea responded by calling Bush "a philistine whom we can never deal with."

The U.S. speech, which will be delivered to conference delegates today, focuses heavily on Iran and North Korea "in very tough language," said one U.S. official, who agreed to discuss the details on the condition of anonymity. The speech will also go over proposals Bush made in February 2004 but will not offer any new ideas about how to deal with growing nuclear crises and will avoid mention of a dozen nuclear commitments the United States signed on to, along with other nations, at the previous review conference in 2000.

Those commitments, which focus on nuclear disarmament, have become touchstones for nonnuclear states that say the United States is not honoring the treaty's main purpose of eliminating nuclear weapons.

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