Nuclear pressure could backfire, Iran warns US

Pressure from the US and other countries gathering for a UN atomic energy meeting this week could aggravate tensions instead of clearing up concern about Iran's suspected nuclear activities, Tehran's delegate said in a blunt warning yesterday.

Washington accuses Iran of working on a secret nuclear weapons programme. Iran insists its programmes are devoted only to generating electricity. Tehran's nuclear intentions are the main item at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency today in Vienna.

The UN agency's board of governors will be debating how to react to an IAEA report revealing traces of weapons-grade uranium at a nuclear facility at Natanz, 500km (300 miles) south of Tehran. The Iranians say the second-hand centrifuge components in question were contaminated before they were purchased by Tehran.

The Bush administration decided late last week not to ask the meeting to endorse a resolution that would have found Iran in noncompliance of its IAEA obligations, an apparent victory for Tehran. Member states found in noncompliance can be reported to the UN Security Council, which can take steps ranging from criticism to sanctions.

Instead, the resolution, which is still being drafted and must be approved by the board, is likely to call on Iran to come up with answers to questions raised in the report and provide full disclosure of its programme.

The resolution could also set a deadline for Iran and warn that if it does not, it will be declared in noncompliance, diplomats said before the meeting.

Kenneth Brill, the chief American IAEA delegate, declined to comment on what the US was seeking. But he and other board members believe there is an effort by Iran, "to evade international obligations and to seek the capacity to build nuclear weapons," he said. "The majority of board members will want to see Iran ... enhance its co-operation" and "provide the answers to all the questions that are outstanding", he said.

In Tehran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, said the IAEA did not share the view of the US, "which pursues an extremist position. Its behaviour is politically motivated." And in Vienna, Iran's chief IAEA delegate warned both the US and the board to back away from excessive pressure on his country.

While not going into specifics, Ali Akbar Salehi warned of "unexpected or surprising consequences" should the Iranian leadership decide that board demands were too harsh.

Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, also said too much pressure on Iran could backfire.

"You may make a country halt, but you may also push it into a more institutionalised covert [nuclear weapons] programme," he said. "If you push too hard in the nuclear dimension, you can simply end up making a country shift toward another programme of weapons of mass destruction."

Mr Cordesman, in a recent survey of Iran's nuclear activities, wrote that Iran wants to "develop a complete nuclear fuel cycle", from mining its own uranium to enriching the ore, for its energy projects.

"In this guise, it seeks to obtain whole facilities, such as a uranium conversion facility, that, in fact, could be used ... in support of efforts to produce fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon," he wrote.

Under international pressure, Iran offered last month to negotiate on a protocol obliging it to open its nuclear programme to IAEA perusal. Mr Salehi said that offer still stood - but indicated it could be withdrawn.

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