Iran resumed uranium work at a key nuclear facility yesterday, ignoring warnings from Washington and European capitals that such a move could land the issue of Tehran's nuclear efforts in the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to impose economic sanctions or an oil embargo.
In a strongly worded letter to the governments of Britain, France and Germany, Iranian officials also formally rejected a European offer that held out promises of better relations with the West in exchange for Iran's decision to dismantle much of its nuclear program.
The letter and the decision to restart a uranium conversion facility in the town of Isfahan came ahead of an emergency meeting of the 35-member board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) today in Vienna to discuss Iran's program. It also threw into turmoil more than two years of negotiations between Tehran and the three European countries aimed at resolving suspicions about Iran's nuclear energy program, which includes technologies that could be diverted to atomic weapons work.
The Europeans have said the negotiations would be terminated if Iran resumed any part of its nuclear program that had been on hold. Diplomats met in Vienna yesterday to draft a resolution urging Iran to shut down the conversion facility and return to talks with the Europeans.
The Bush administration, which has argued for more than two years that the Iran issue belongs in the Security Council, is looking for a toughly worded resolution that would move the matter directly to U.N. review in New York if Iran continued with the conversion work.
State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Washington was consulting allies "about how we should respond to this action." Ereli also suggested the United States could deny a visa for Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to attend a U.N. summit in New York next month. Ereli said Washington will support European efforts "to get this process back on track," but added, "I don't want to predict an outcome of what will happen and when."
In Vienna and Washington, diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity said it was unlikely the IAEA board would immediately refer the matter to the Security Council because Iran's actions do not violate any international laws. Britain, France and Germany have said they would support Security Council referral if the diplomatic process appears exhausted, but they were working diplomatic channels to coax the Iranians back to negotiations before the crisis escalates.
"Negotiations are not off the table and can always be resumed," said M. Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations. "But nothing can reverse the resumption of work at Isfahan."
Iran agreed in November, after months of talks with the three European countries, to suspend its nuclear program while the four parties discussed the possibility of a final agreement. On Friday, the European trio offered Iran a package of incentives in exchange for a legally binding commitment by Iran to permanently forgo much of its nuclear program. Iran, which claims to be exercising its legal rights to a nuclear energy program under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has said it would not give up the program.
It formally rejected the European offer yesterday, calling the proposal a "clear violation of international law [that] seeks to intimidate Iran into accepting intrusive and illegal inspections." The letter, delivered to European embassies in Tehran, said the proposal "amounts to an insult on the Iranian nation," and called for an apology from the Europeans.
"I think Iran should really bear in mind that this step is a step in the wrong direction," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was quoted telling German television. But he suggested there was still time for Iran to reverse course: "We are trying to prevent a negative trend with fatal consequences."
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy urged Tehran to reconsider. "I call on Iran one more time, tonight, to listen to the voice of reason," he said.
Iran has maintained that its program, built in secret over 18 years, is designed to bring the country a new energy source and is not for nuclear weapons. But the scale of the effort and its clandestine nature have fueled long-held suspicions in Washington that Iran intends to build atomic weapons.
At the conversion facility, 10 miles southeast of the city of Isfahan, Iranian scientists carried out an early stage of the nuclear fuel cycle yesterday in which raw uranium is dissolved into a solution that can be further converted.
IAEA officials have said that the part of the facility now in use is for the first of three phases of conversion, a lengthy and technical process that could eventually yield bomb-grade uranium.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency announced that uranium ore at Isfahan was "taken into a special room for injection, sampling and other reprocessing activities." According to the announcement, the plant will soon begin operating the next two phases in the conversion process. Before the suspension, Iran converted 37 tons of yellowcake into the second phase of conversion.
Iran has tried several times to exempt the Isfahan facility from the suspension deal and during the past six months has conducted some work there, much to the annoyance of the Europeans. Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran's atomic energy department, said Iran would hold off on starting uranium enrichment at a separate facility pending future negotiations.