-- The Iranian government threatened on Wednesday to restart its uranium enrichment program if the United Nations finds that the country has failed to cooperate with nuclear inspectors.
President Mohammad Khatami also implied during a news conference that Iran was prepared to abandon a diplomatic agreement with three European nations that it accepted last October, defusing a mounting confrontation over Iran's nuclear plans.
The voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment activities was considered a gesture to build international confidence in the country. In addition, the government had promised to explicate nuclear activities it had kept secret for 18 years. Iranian officials have insisted their aim has been to develop nuclear power for peaceful uses, not weapons.
But current international inspections have uncovered equipment that Iran did not disclose in what it described as a comprehensive report on its nuclear program. Among the equipment was a P-2 gas centrifuge, which is better than other similar devices at producing bomb-grade nuclear material. The governments of France, Britain and Germany urged the International Atomic Energy Agency to rebuke Iran, citing information previously undisclosed by Iran, as well as contradictory explanations and the slow pace of cooperation.
Khatami sent a letter to the three countries this week saying that Iran felt betrayed.
"With the ongoing trend, we have no moral commitment anymore to suspend uranium enrichment," Khatami said in the Wednesday news conference. "The IAEA resolution is very bad."
"If Europe has no commitment toward Iran, then Iran will not have a commitment toward Europe," he added.
In Vienna, where representatives of the 35 signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty met for a third day, a U.S. official accused Iran of trying to strong-arm the IAEA, news agencies reported. The U.S. government has been a vocal critic of the Iranian nuclear program, openly describing it as a cover for weapons development.
"The basic message that Iran is sending is that they have something to hide and they're going to use any means they have, including intimidation, to keep things from coming to light," Kenneth Brill, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told reporters in Vienna.
"People who are trying to produce electricity for light bulbs don't engage in this kind of behavior."
Khatami avoided making a specific statement of Iranian intentions during the news conference. "I am not saying we will do something particular," he said. But he added that Iran would adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, discounting speculation that it would follow the lead of North Korea, which withdrew from the treaty after its nuclear weapons program was revealed.
But Khatami's warning was only one of several issued by senior Iranian officials this week, signaling Iranian impatience with the inspections. While Khatami is considered a moderate in the Iranian government, on Tuesday the hard-line speaker of Iran's parliament suggested the assembly might decline to ratify an additional protocol to the treaty that would allow inspections on two hours' notice.
After Khatami spoke Wednesday, about 400 members of the Basiji, or state-supported paramilitary organizations, staged a protest against the IAEA at the Bushehr nuclear reactor near the Persian Gulf, which was built with Russian assistance. A similar group, chanting slogans, staged another protest at the site of a proposed heavy-water reactor in Arak in central Iran.
"Nuclear technology is our absolute right," the protesters chanted, according to the state news agency IRNA. "Death to America, Britain, Germany and France."
One diplomat based in Tehran said that the three European partners were taking a firm stand on the Iranian nuclear issue. In contrast to U.S. policy, the diplomat said, the European Union has sought to coax change from Tehran through "constructive engagement." "It's been common policy not to make closer friends with Iran until the WMD question is resolved," the diplomat said, referring to weapons of mass destruction. "There is a sense of crisis about it internally in Iran," the diplomat said, adding that "they haven't got friends, they haven't got allies on this."
Several diplomats said that governments in Europe were counting on Iran -- despite its confrontational rhetoric -- to continue a trend of recent years toward ending decades as an international pariah. But they acknowledged that the direct challenge on nuclear issues carries risks, especially with hard-liners apparently ascendant in Iran's fundamentalist Islamic government.
"The whole idea of pressing Iran that far may prove backward," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior official in the Iranian judiciary. "I think the best way is to engage with Iran.
"You don't have to be Einstein to create a bomb."