Sunday, June 25, 2006

ANALYSIS - Where to draw line on atom work key to Iran offer

Fri Jun 23, 2006 10:00 PM IST
By Mark Heinrich
/nuclear iran/-- Any chance of defusing a row over Iran's nuclear programme may hinge on the definition of a key precondition given to Tehran -- suspension of nuclear "enrichment-related activity".

Six major powers have offered a package of incentives to Iran not to enrich nuclear fuel and are pushing for an early response from Tehran, which the United States fears is trying to develop an atom bomb.

A breakthrough looks doubtful now. Iran says it is enriching uranium only for electricity and rules out scrapping the programme even as a result of talks. The powers rule out talks unless Tehran freezes the programme first to establish trust.

But behind public fronts, there have been discussions aided by International Atomic Energy Agency experts in Vienna on whether there is scope for flexibility in defining "suspension" in order to start talks, a diplomat close to the debate said.

"The whole issue, the only issue, is to find a definition of suspension that allows both sides to say they got their way. Otherwise, this package goes nowhere," the Vienna diplomat said.

"Some informal reflections are going on and the IAEA has got involved by advancing some of these ideas," said a senior European Union diplomat, who like others asked for anonymity.

The Vienna diplomat said one scenario was to let Iran, under heightened IAEA surveillance, run a small number of centrifuge enrichment machines empty, without the uranium "UF6" gas normally injected into them for enrichment into fuel.

This could be termed a "maintenance pause", or "standby" mooted by some U.S. nuclear analysts, he said.

It might enable "pre-negotiations" on terms for implementing the incentives and avoid the word "suspension", which to Iran implies externally-imposed preconditions it finds humiliating.

"After recent talks between IAEA and U.S. officials, the IAEA was informally asked to evaluate the relative proliferation risks of Iran being allowed to run their (current) cascade of 164 centrifuges, and a couple more they are building," he said.

"The analyses sent back to Washington concluded there would be little to no risk since any quantities of enriched uranium yielded would be so small as to not be relevant to bombmaking."

But one analysis read out to Reuters by a Western diplomat concluded that even spinning centrifuges empty would give Iran know-how for "a successful, long-term centrifuge operation".


U.S. officials insist the definition of suspension is fixed -- all activities fostering fuel work -- and are not bargaining over this with Iran. They balk at being drawn into talks giving Iran time to expand enrichment and make it a fait accompli.

But one U.S. official who tends to take a hard line on Iran said there were perceptions the Bush administration would eventually give in on this issue. There is a precedent.

Western leaders originally ruled out any enrichment ever on Iranian soil as too dangerous. Now, to ensure Russia and China closed ranks with the West on the new approach to Iran, the package offered gives Tehran leeway to enrich in the future, after a confidence-building moratorium.

Of the other six powers, only Britain appears dead-set against softening the definition of enrichment activity.

EU diplomats said Germany would likely have no problem with Iran spinning a few centrifuges, with or without UF6 gas, nor would Russia and China, while France's stance was less certain.

Moscow and Beijing argue Iran poses no threat to peace as long as no "smoking gun" evidence that nuclear materials are being diverted into bombmaking has turned up -- and none has.

IAEA diplomats say compromise is needed because Iran has already mastered basic enrichment technology while the West's mooted option of sanctions if Tehran rejects the offer risks a Russian or Chinese veto in the U.N. Security Council.

A compromise ideally would assuage Iranian national pride, sharpened by past imperial power domination of its oil and gas wealth, and allay world fears of nuclear proliferation in Iran.

Floating trial balloons, Tehran has hinted it could cap the number of centrifuges spinning short of "industrial capacity", the basis for enriching uranium at sufficient volume to produce bombs, and reinstate short-notice IAEA inspections.

Nuclear analysts said Iran was likely now to ask the powers to define an enrichment halt as "spinning without feeding".

"This could confront the West with a tough decision. China and Russia will want to say this is not enrichment so it's a basis for a deal," said Mark Fitzpatrick of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"But as long as centrifuges spin, Iran is gaining crucial expertise that would enable them to prevent accidents, leaks or other telltale signs of secret activity," he said.

(additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran, Carol Giacomo in Washington and Louis Charbonneau in Berlin)

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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