Iran 'stepping up its nuclear programme'

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Iran has been accused by the head of the world's nuclear agency of stepping up its controversial programme in defiance of UN demands, prompting calls from Britain and America for diplomatic pressure to be increased to prevent the Islamic Republic from building a bomb.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, issued a report concluding that Iran had ignored a month-long deadline issued by the UN security council for its scientists to halt uranium enrichment. That is the key step in the nuclear process which produces the fuel that can be used in nuclear power stations or in a weapon.

"After more than three years of agency efforts to seek clarity about all aspects of Iran's nuclear programme, the existing gaps in knowledge continue to be a matter of concern," Mr ElBaradei's report said.

The eight-page report said that because of the lack of full co-operation by Iran, the agency could not guarantee that the Islamic republic's nuclear programme was purely peaceful, as stated by the Iranian leadership. The IAEA had been "unable to make progress in its efforts to provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran."

But Mr ElBaradei quoted a letter from Iran in which it offered "to resolve the remaining outstanding issues ... in accordance with the international laws and norms, "and to provide a timetable in this regard within three weeks".

The Iranians, whose leadership is publicly defiant, informed Mr ElBaradei that it remained "fully committed" to its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and that it was co-operating with IAEA. But the letter said the timetable and continued access for inspectors to declared nuclear sites, were conditional on Iran's nuclear dossier staying with the IAEA, in an apparent attempt to avert security council action.

President George Bush, whose administration has been calling for sanctions against Iran and even hinted of possible military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, stressed that he was seeking a peaceful outcome. "It's very important for the Iranians to understand there is a common desire by a lot of nations in this world to convince them, peacefully convince them, that they ought to give up their weapons ambitions," he said.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain would ask the Security Council "to increase the pressure on Iran so the international community can be assured that its nuclear programme is not a threat to peace and security".

In New York, the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, and the British ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry, said they would introduce a draft resolution next week, seeking to make the instruction to Iran to cease uranium enrichment legally binding under Chapter VII of the UN charter.

But the initial resolution will not threaten sanctions or hint at military force. Instead, it will put directives by the 35-member IAEA board of governors and the March council statement into a resolution which would also say Iran's nuclear programme was a threat to "international peace and security", Mr Bolton said.

Iran will be given a relatively short time to comply, after which Western powers would consider targeted sanctions against individuals and possible restrictions on trade, Mr Bolton added. "They have to comply or the security council is prepared to take other steps," he said."

But Russia and China, which also hold veto power on the council, have expressed opposition to a Chapter VII resolution in the light of the Iraq experience. China's UN ambassador Wang Guangya again made clear Beijing's opposition to sanctions and raised doubts about any resolution under Chapter VII.

Mr ElBaradei said that the IAEA still needed further clarification about the contacts with Pakistan's AQ Khan network, which secretly supplied Iran with the blueprint for a P1 centrifuge in the 1980s. Centrifuges, when set spinning in a grouped array called a cascade, enrich uranium hexafluoride gas into the fuel that can power a civilian reactor or a nuclear weapon, depending on its level of enrichment.

Where next in the crisis?

* WHAT'S THE NEXT STEP TO CURB IRAN'S NUCLEAR AMBITIONS?

It will take some time for the big powers to decide how to react to the latest report. Even though the US and Britain want to table a resolution in the UN security council next week, to keep the pressure on Iran, the timetable could slip in the interests of reaching a consensus with Russia and China, which are openly opposed to any kind of sanction. The first opportunity for discussion is next Tuesday, when senior officials from the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China will meet on the issue. But the Iranians know that now they are on the UN Security Council agenda, the pressure will start being ratcheted up.

* WHAT'S THE PROBLEM WITH THE RUSSIANS AND THE CHINESE?

They agree that Iran should not be allowed to enrich uranium, which could be the first step towards building a nuclear weapon, but they sympathise with the position of the Iranians who have done nothing wrong in terms of international law. The moratorium on uranium enrichment which Iran ended last January, causing an international crisis, had been a voluntary one. Both China and Russia are anxious for a diplomatic solution because they have important economic ties to Iran; Russia is building a nuclear reactor at Bushehr, and China is a major oil client.

* SO WHY IS THE WEST SO CONCERNED?

Because of the fear that a country now led by a fanatical President, who has pledged to wipe out the state of Israel, may not be telling the truth when it says its intentions are purely peaceful. After all, Iran concealed its nuclear programme from the rest of the world for 20 years.

* HOW WILL THE IRANIANS REACT?

Most likely in the same defiant way that the leadership has since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year. He's playing a winning card with the nuclear issue, which has become a matter of national pride.

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