By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 12, 2005
European officials notified Iran for the first time yesterday that they will walk away from two years of talks and sign on to a Bush administration strategy for punitive measures against Tehran if it makes good on threats to resume nuclear work in coming days.
In a sharply worded letter to Hassan Rouhani, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany warned that such work "would bring the negotiating process to an end." The letter added: "The consequences could only be negative for Iran."
The letter was an attempt to avert an escalation in the crisis over a program Iran says it developed in secret to produce nuclear energy, not atomic weapons. It appeared to have an immediate effect.
After weeks of threats, Iranian officials said they decided to hold off for now on a plan to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency today of their intent to restart a uranium-conversion facility in the town of Isfahan. Instead, an Iranian diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity said his government was exploring an offer contained in the letter for a four-way meeting sometime in the next two weeks to discuss the latest flare-up.
The willingness of the European trio to take Iran to task if it ends a suspension of its nuclear program after six months indicated that the Bush administration is having some success in persuading key allies to take a tougher approach with the Islamic republic.
The European shift was prompted in part by frustration with Iran but also by a change in tactics by the White House. After two years of refusing to back Europe's diplomatic track with Iran, the administration decided in March to support the process in exchange for written guarantees that if talks fell apart, Europe would agree to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
"This is the closest we've gotten to reporting Iran to the council since November 2003," said one U.S. official. If Iran informs the IAEA that it plans to resume work at any nuclear facility, "it will set off a series of outcomes and escalations towards the Security Council that will be hard to stop," said the official, who would discuss the sensitive discussions only on the condition of anonymity.
But neither European nor U.S. officials were confident yesterday of what a referral to the council would ultimately mean or how much support they could expect there. Unlike the IAEA board, the council has the international legal authority to impose economic sanctions or threaten Iran with force if its program is seen as a danger.
Both China and Russia have said they want the issue resolved within the IAEA, and Security Council members are leery of making any moves that could be perceived as hostile or that might be used to justify later military action against Iran.
Iran's program is within its rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows countries access to sensitive technology as long as it is used for peaceful purposes and not for weapons development.
Iran maintains that it is adhering to that arrangement. But the scale of its program, as well as the secrecy under which it was developed, has undermined its position and led the Bush administration to believe Iran intends to build nuclear bombs.
Iran's main nuclear site was exposed by a dissident group in 2002, setting off an investigation now in its third year. The U.N. inspectors have said they have no proof that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. But the Bush administration has not accepted those findings.
Under pressure, Iran suspended its program in an agreement with France, Britain and Germany that was supposed to yield economic benefits in exchange. In their letter, a copy of which was made available to The Washington Post yesterday, the European countries emphasized that the prospect of lucrative trade deals is still on the table but that "this sort of progress will be jeopardized" if the suspension breaks and the talks fall apart.
Iranian officials, too, have expressed frustration. They had expected the negotiations to be brief but say they now find themselves deep in Iran's presidential election season with little to show after six months.
At a round of talks in London last month, Iran offered a four-phase plan that would allow it to resume operating much of its program, including 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, which is considered by U.S. intelligence to be seven years away from a bomb, has promised not to enrich uranium to those levels and said the machines could operate under 24-hour surveillance by U.N. inspectors.
But that offer was rejected by European negotiators who believe the only guarantee is an end to enrichment. If the sides are not able to resolve the latest crisis, Iran could go ahead with work at Isfahan. That decision would trigger an emergency meeting of the IAEA board next Wednesday in Vienna, where U.S and European negotiators would issue an ultimatum to Iran to back down, officials said.
If Iran breaks IAEA seals on equipment in Isfahan, one European official said, "they will be referred to the U.N. Security Council" during the board's regularly scheduled meeting on June 13. IAEA inspectors arrived in Isfahan yesterday and are standing by in case the Iranians decide to restart the facility.