Britain, France and Germany took a tough line yesterday in response to Iran's announcement that it has decided to resume work at a key nuclear facility. In a letter to Tehran, foreign ministers from the three European countries said such an action would end two years of negotiations, and left open the possibility of taking the issue up with the U.N. Security Council, something the Bush administration has advocated and Iran has sought to avoid.
So far, neither the Europeans nor the Iranians have taken irreversible steps that could terminate their negotiations to resolve a crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The maneuvering, which officials said they considered to be serious, was reminiscent of a week-long crisis in May. That standoff was eventually resolved when the Europeans agreed to speed up the pace of negotiations and Iran backed down from threats to restart the uranium conversion facility in the town of Isfahan.
"We fully support the E.U.'s negotiating process, and we believe it's important for Iran to choose a non-nuclear future," said R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs. "We do not wish Iran to become a nuclear weapons state."
The Europeans have held out the prospect of a lucrative package deal for Iran as long as it maintains a suspension of all work related to the production of highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient in a nuclear weapon. If Iran breaks the suspension, the deal would be off and the matter could move to the Security Council, which can impose economic sanctions.
"Were Iran to resume currently suspended activities, our negotiations would be brought to an end and we would have no option but to pursue other courses of action," said yesterday's letter to Iran's chief negotiator, Hassan Rowhani. "We therefore call upon Iran not to resume suspended activities or take other unilateral steps." A copy of the letter was also sent to U.N. inspectors in Vienna and made public. It was signed by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Javier Solana, foreign policy chief for the European Union.
Although Iran announced Monday that it would restart the facility, it has not yet done so. U.N. inspectors said seals on equipment were intact and that no work was being conducted at the site.
"I think this Iranian affair is very serious and that it could be the start of a major crisis," Douste-Blazy told reporters in Paris.
If Iran does retreat, European diplomats said they plan to present Tehran with a package by Aug. 7 that includes security assurances and economic cooperation. It also includes a guaranteed and sustainable fuel supply so that Iran would not have to enrich its own uranium to power its planned nuclear energy program. In exchange, the Europeans want Tehran to permanently forgo uranium enrichment because the material could also be used for nuclear weapons. Iran has said it has no intention of giving up that capability now.
The Europeans have said they were waiting for Iran's new president to take office this week so that he could receive the deal. But the Iranians have been pushing for it sooner, possibly so that the outgoing leaders can be remembered as the ones who were behind the offer.
Iran says its nuclear program, built in secret over 18 years, is designed to produce nuclear energy, not bombs. But the clandestine nature of the effort created deep suspicions in Washington and elsewhere about Iran's intentions.
U.N. nuclear inspectors have been investigating the program for more than two years and have uncovered facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment, results of plutonium tests, and equipment bought illicitly from Pakistan. Those findings raised concerns but could be explained by an energy program. Inspectors have found no proof that Iran is conducting a nuclear weapons program.
A major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about 10 years away from being able to manufacture the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, according to government sources. That roughly doubles the previous U.S. estimate and could provide more time for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.