By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
A defiant Iran faced the prospect of economic sanctions after U.N. inspectors reported that the country ignored yesterday's deadline to halt its nuclear program and has been hindering efforts to determine whether it seeks to secretly develop nuclear weapons.
President Bush, invoking the same language that he used to describe Iraq before the March 2003 invasion, called Iran a "grave threat" and said "there must be consequences" for Tehran's actions. "It is time for Iran to make a choice," Bush said in a speech to the American Legion's national convention in Salt Lake City.
His administration had offered to join talks with Iran and held out the possibility of future cooperation after 27 years' enmity, if Tehran met the United Nations' deadline for suspending its nuclear program. Yesterday, however, U.S. officials said they will demand international sanctions against the Iranian government.
"We are going to move this toward a sanctions resolution at the United Nations," said R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs. "We expect others to join us."
It is unclear how much support the White House has for the tough measures it hopes will force Iran to abandon a nuclear effort that has become a source of national pride. No world leader who commented on yesterday's events spoke in the stark terms that Bush used, and none of the president's closest allies said sanctions are certain.
European officials expressed dismay with Iran but emphasized a commitment to negotiations; they scheduled a meeting next week with Ali Larijani, the Iranian government's point man on nuclear issues. European diplomats will meet with Burns the next day in Berlin to discuss their options.
Since his 2002 State of the Union speech, when he singled out Iran as part of an "axis of evil," Bush has tried without success to roll back Tehran's nuclear energy program. He has asserted, without offering proof, that it is a cover for weapons development.
Iran has insisted that the nuclear program, which it kept hidden for 18 years, is for the production of peaceful energy that it has a right to develop.
"The Iranian nation will not accept for one moment any bullying, invasion and violation of its rights," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said. He called the United States government "tyrannical." His foreign minister said Iran's program is transparently peaceful and will continue.
In yesterday's report, nuclear inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency detailed a mountain of circumstantial evidence, collected in the last three years, that suggests Iran is still concealing aspects of its nuclear program. In just six pages, the inspectors complained 18 times about Iran's lack of cooperation, including refusing to hand over crucial documents, denying access to facilities and a new policy of rejecting certain entry visas for some inspectors. As a result, inspectors said, they could not confirm "the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
But IAEA officials noted yesterday that they have not found proof of a weapons program and said Iran is still complying with basic, mandatory inspections that allow the agency to monitor all of its work with uranium. That access enabled the IAEA to report that Iran had "not suspended its enrichment related activities," as the Security Council required it to do by yesterday.
Inspectors reported that since April, when Iran began enriching uranium in a string of centrifuges, it has produced about six kilograms of uranium to levels consistent with an energy program. The material cannot be used for a weapon.
Iran began enriching another small quantity last week, but inspectors wrote that there have been more substantial pauses than progress. They noted that the Iranians are working at a much slower pace than the IAEA, outside nuclear experts and some foreign intelligence agencies had forecast.
Iran had said it would be operating three cascades by now, each with 164 centrifuges able to enrich uranium. Instead, one cascade is assembled and is working only sporadically.
"Their progress is far less than expected," said David Albright, a nuclear expert who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security. "Whether it's because of technical problems or self-restraint it's hard to gauge, but I don't think the U.S. can deliver on its promise to get hard sanctions when Iran is barely progressing."
Russia and China were reluctant to impose sanctions even before the report came out, playing down the need just weeks after U.S. officials felt they had received assurances from both countries to support such measures. Although many countries appear to share U.S. suspicions about Iran's intentions, they have profound differences with the Bush administration over how to respond and are apprehensive about the goals of a U.S. president who has said that "all options are on the table" in dealing with Tehran.
"Concerns about a slippery slope toward a military conflict with Iran have hurt U.S. efforts at diplomacy," said Robert J. Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation until November 2001. "The administration approaches the idea of negotiations with Iran as if we are prepared to take yes for an answer, but also engages in activities that suggest regime change is the real objective."
U.S. officials have refused to respond to questions about whether they are seeking the removal of Iran's clerical government. But they have given private assurances to allies that they are currently committed to diplomacy.
There were signs yesterday that Europe will maintain a steady role in that process. Larijani, the Iranian official, spoke by phone Saturday and Tuesday with Javier Solana, the senior representative of the European Union, in discussions both sides described as positive.
Privately, Iranian officials have said they would resume cooperation with inspectors and even consider freezing the nuclear program, but only after they restart talks with Europe and Washington.
In addition to several unanswered questions about the history of the program, inspectors detailed new ones in yesterday's report. A cylinder filled with uranium hexafluoride was temporarily moved by a technician at a uranium conversion plant in the town of Isfahan. No materials seem to be missing from the container, but inspectors expressed concern about the incident.
Also, traces of highly enriched uranium, which can be used for the core of a weapon, were discovered through environmental samples taken at another facility. Previous traces were found to have been the result of used and discarded centrifuge equipment the Iranians bought from Pakistan. Officials at the IAEA said privately yesterday that the new contamination appears to be from old spent fuel the Iranians moved out of harm's way during their eight-year war with Iraq.
"I think the only thing that would move opponents of sanctions now is if the agency found unambiguously the 'smoking gun,' " Einhorn said.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Salt Lake City and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.