By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005
UNITED NATIONS, May 4 -- Iran has not made any decision to restart its nuclear program, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Wednesday, adding that his country does not want to jeopardize key negotiations with Europe or escalate tensions with the United States.
Kharrazi's spokesman had said on Tuesday that Iran was going to resume part of the program. Those comments set off deep concern that months of negotiations between Iran and European nations were in trouble. The Bush administration responded by preparing for the possibility of moving the issue into the U.N. Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions if Iran's program is seen as a threat.
But in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, Kharrazi said that the announcement should be interpreted as "a message" that Iran is frustrated and wants to see results from the negotiations over the future of its nuclear program.
"We have insisted that we are looking for something tangible to convince our public opinion" of the worthiness of the European talks, he said. In November, Iran suspended sensitive nuclear work in an agreement with France, Britain and Germany that was supposed to yield economic benefits in exchange. The European trio has continued to hold out the prospect of lucrative trade deals but will not follow through unless they are assured that Iran's nuclear program is strictly peaceful.
Iranian officials insist that their nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not atomic weapons, and had originally envisioned three months of negotiations. They now find themselves deep in a presidential election season with little to show after six months.
"We are under heavy pressure from our parliament and media to show results for the time we spent on the negotiations," Kharrazi said. He said Iran's leaders were still mulling their options, including the possibility of going ahead with some part of the nuclear program. "A decision has not been made, and we are waiting for a decision to be announced, but we cannot wait forever and we have to take some measures toward the realization of our rights."
Several European diplomats said Kharrazi had delivered a similar message to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in talks at the United Nations on Tuesday. Kharrazi also told Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran would notify U.N. inspectors before any change to the current suspension.
His explanations came after strong reactions in Europe and Washington to Iran's threats to terminate a suspension that has been holding since last November. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that "a resumption of any enrichment and reprocessing activities would be contrary to that commitment that the Iranians made." Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, said it would be "completely unacceptable" to the Europeans.
The Bush administration has been eager to ratchet up pressure on Iran and won a pledge in March from the Europeans that they would support taking the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the Security Council if it breaks the suspension.
For now, Kharrazi said the suspension is holding as a good faith gesture. But Iran will not maintain that posture indefinitely. At the London talks, Iran offered a four-phase plan that would allow it to resume operating 3,000 centrifuges, equipment used to enrich uranium. That kind of industrial-scale capability could allow Iran to produce enough bomb-grade uranium for a single nuclear device within a year. Iran would need to jump other hurdles before it could build a weapon and, according to U.S. estimates, is five to six years away from being able to complete a bomb.
Kharrazi said the machines would enrich uranium to a level sufficient only for operating power plants and would operate under 24-hour surveillance by U.N. inspectors.
A European official familiar with the offer called it a "subjective guarantee, not an objective one," because it would leave Iran with the ability to make bomb-grade uranium.
In a speech Tuesday at a conference here to review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Kharrazi said Iran is determined to hold on to all aspects of its nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear energy or bombs.
Under the terms of the nuclear treaty, Iran and other countries that forgo nuclear weapons are eligible for sensitive nuclear technology as long as it is used for peaceful energy programs. Iran maintains that it is adhering to that arrangement. But the Bush administration said earlier this week that Iran should not be allowed to benefit from it any longer because it spent 18 years building nuclear facilities in secret.
Iran's main nuclear site was exposed by a dissident group in 2002, fueling suspicions about the Islamic republic's true intentions and setting off a two-year investigation by U.N. inspectors. The inspectors have said they have found no proof Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. But the Bush administration has not accepted those findings or Iran's assertions.