Iran defies Europe by resuming nuclear work

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The announcement that Iran had reopened its plant at Isfahan to resume uranium conversion sets the country on a collision course with its European negotiating partners. They have warned that they would press for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions if the authorities carried out a threat to resume the activities that could eventually result in the production of a nuclear weapon.

Britain, France and Germany called today's meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna after Iran threatened to reopen the Isfahan site. The three countries had warned Iran if it did so it would breach an agreement to suspend activities during negotiations with the EU, and risk referral to the Security Council.

But an analyst with the independent nuclear think-tank Basic (British American Security Information Council) said the European strategy was flawed and risked being counter-productive. Although US pressure at today's meeting could lead to Iran being referred to the Security Council, a Basic analyst, Paul Ingram, said that China, which holds a veto, was unlikely to back sanctions against Iran, which has become a major trading partner.

"It's a non-credible threat. Such policies are inherently dangerous because they invite people to call your bluff," Mr Ingram said.

Iran has also taken care to keep the IAEA on board, by reopening the Isfahan site in the presence of UN inspectors. The Iranians, who have the sympathy of other non-nuclear states on the 35-nation IAEA board, insist they have the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The three European countries issued statements last night regretting Iran's decision to reject without further discussion its package of economic and security proposals aimed at persuading Tehran to permanently freeze its nuclear- related activities.

The Foreign Office minister Ian Pearson said Iran's decision was damaging. Britain was "deeply concerned" by the restarting of work at Isfahan.

In a further sign of the hardening of Iran's position, a conservative close to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is to take over as chief nuclear negotiator. The appointment of Ali Larijani reflects the realignment of policy following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President.

The US has long suspected Iran of using its civilian programme as a cover to develop nuclear weapons. The latest US intelligence suggested last week that Iran was 10 years away from making the bomb, further than previously stated by US experts.

Experts believe the Iranians want to keep their options open, which is why they are continuing to insist on the right to develop their own nuclear fuel.

* A former president has disclosed that the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 tried to develop an atomic bomb, but says the programme was scrapped when an elected government assumed power. Jose Sarney's comments were the first confirmation of the programme, which was suspected to be in operation at the time.