Iranian officials strongly criticized a European proposal they received yesterday that called on Tehran to dismantle much of the country's nuclear infrastructure. In exchange, the Europeans held out the prospect of improved political and economic ties with the West.
The offer, which was presented as a framework for further negotiations, won quick U.S. support by including many proposals the Bush administration has advocated on its own, such as requiring Iran to accept U.N. inspections anywhere and at any time. The European proposal is aimed at preventing Iran from being able to divert its civilian nuclear program to a military one.
But Iranian officials said the proposal, which includes more than a dozen conditional and sometimes ambiguous incentives, was insulting. "Maybe the Europeans are willing to sell out their own rights at a cheap price, but Iran is not," said M. Javad Zarif, the country's ambassador to the United Nations. In an interview, he called the offer "absurd, demeaning and self-congratulatory" and said it was not enough to stop Iran's plans to resume next week some of the same nuclear work the Europeans want it to give up.
That resumption, promised by Tehran last week, set the stage for an emergency meeting next Tuesday in Vienna at the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been overseeing an investigation of Iran's nuclear program. It also appeared to draw U.S. and European positions on the matter closer together.
Officials from Britain, Germany, France and the United States agreed in private discussions yesterday at the State Department that the Tuesday meeting, meant to ratchet up pressure on Iran, would go forward unless the threat to resume nuclear work was retracted. If Iran begins to convert uranium -- the first step in a lengthy technical process that could yield bomb-grade uranium -- the four allies would convene another IAEA meeting and call for the matter to be referred to the U.N. Security Council, diplomats said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
For more than two years, the European trio has been trying to persuade Iran to give up technology that could be used to fuel a nuclear energy program or atomic weapons. Iran has insisted that its program, built in secret over 18 years, is peaceful, but the scale and clandestine nature of the effort created deep suspicions about the country's intentions. IAEA inspectors, working in Iran for more than two years, have not found evidence of a weapons program. But questions remain, and the Europeans had hoped a political deal could persuade Iran to give up any ambitions it may have for nuclear weapons.
A new 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, and U.S. intelligence is uncertain about whether Iran has decided to build such weapons.
During the two years of negotiations, the Iranians have said they have no intention of building weapons but will not give up their right, under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to build a uranium-enrichment capability that could fuel an energy program. The Europeans had suggested they would offer Iran security assurances and nuclear fuel guarantees and boost economic and political links if Tehran agreed to give up the enrichment plans.
But yesterday's 31-page offer fell far short of Iran's expectations.
Before Iran would be eligible for any cooperation under the offer, it would have to sign a "binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities" that it now has either under construction or on hold, according to a copy of the proposal. It would have to halt construction of a heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak and eventually dismantle other facilities, which the Iranians have said they would not do.
In addition, IAEA inspectors, whose access is limited by international law, would be allowed "to visit any site or interview any person they deem relevant to their monitoring of nuclear activities in Iran." That would give the inspectors the same kind of access they had in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
The agreement also would prevent Iran from leaving the international nuclear treaty even though it contains a legal exit clause, and it would force Iran to agree to buy, rather than to make, fuel for its planned nuclear energy program.
The European offer lays out several strategies for guaranteeing a fuel supply, although it does not address the fact that the United States, not Europe, controls or exerts great influence over purchasing possibilities Iran would face.
"I don't understand how the Europeans can guarantee fuel supply if the U.S. isn't explicitly saying it won't impose sanctions on companies that cooperate with the Iranians," said George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The same thing goes for security guarantees from Europe which aren't relevant when it is the United States" that Iran is worried about.
Iran had expected, based on early word from Europe, that the proposals would include security assurances that would protect Iran, which now has U.S. troops on its Iraqi and Afghan borders, from any future U.S. military plans. But the Europeans offered only limited guarantees of their own and did not include guarantees from the United States.
U.S. officials have long said they would not negotiate directly with Iran, a country President Bush once referred to as a member of an "axis of evil." But five months ago Bush agreed to back the European effort to negotiate an agreement, and today the European proposal was welcomed in Washington.
"We support the . . . efforts and the proposal they have put forward to find a diplomatic solution to this problem," said Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman. A senior administration official told reporters privately that much of the attention is now focused on whether the Iranians will go ahead with the uranium conversion work, a move that would effectively terminate the European diplomatic track.
"If the Iranians actually broke seals [on equipment] and tried to convert uranium, then the agreement would be violated and one would expect the action to be transferred to the Security Council," the official said.