VIENNA, Austria (AP) – Iran demanded an end to U.N. Security Council “interference” in exchange for clearing up suspicions about its disputed nuclear activities, an apparent attempt to head off new sanctions over its refusal to stop uranium enrichment.
The overture, contained in a document made available to The Associated Press on Tuesday, came amid ongoing deliberations among the five permanent Council members on a new resolution aiming to tighten up sanctions against Tehran for its nuclear defiance.
While Iran has made such offers before, renewing it now seemed to be linked to those moves in New York, even though diplomats involved in a new draft resolution cautioned that any agreement was some time off.
Such deliberations usually pit Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France, which want harsher U.N punishments than either Moscow or Beijing. While the five nations agreed on an initial set of sanctions on Dec. 23, they were milder than the West had wanted and took Russian and Chinese reservations into account.
The document said Iran was ready to “negotiate … for the resolution of outstanding issues with the IAEA … without the interference” of the Security Council. Signed by Ali Ashgar Soltaniyeh, Iran’s chief representative to the agency, the letter also said the country was ready to “enter a constructive … negotiation.”
The document was dated Feb. 19 but Soltaniyeh, in a cover letter dated March 2, asked it to be presented in full to the 35 board members of the IAEA, and diplomats from board member nations said it was being circulated Tuesday at a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation board.
The offer to negotiate also has been made before by top Iranian officials. But it repeatedly has been rejected by the five Security Council permanent members and Germany, Tehran’s key interlocutors on its nuclear program, because the Islamic republic refuses their precondition that it first mothball its enrichment activities. Iranian opposition to freezing first and talking later doomed both previous talks and then later attempts to restart them. Soltaniyeh, asked if his country feared new sanctions, told the AP that «no country welcomes sanctions” because they mean “more problems for the people and the country,” but added: “This does not mean we will be afraid.” His comments were unusually low-key compared to the usual tone of defiance struck by Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Enrichment is a key issue because it can be used to make the fissile core of nuclear warheads, although Tehran insists it wants to enrich only to low levels used to generate power. ElBaradei also has made an issue of Iran’s spotty record of cooperation with his inspectors.
ElBaradei, whose agency has spent more than four years probing Tehran’s nuclear activities, told an IAEA board meeting on its opening day Monday that IAEA is “unable to provide the required assurance about the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” Unless Tehran takes “the long-overdue decision” to cooperate with the IAEA, it “will have no option but to reserve its judgment about Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.
Iran has enriched small quantities of uranium to the low level suitable for nuclear fuel generation. The U.S. and its allies fear that Iran could build nuclear weapons with larger amounts of more highly enriched uranium.
Ahmadinejad had been expected to announce last month that Iran had started installing 3,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges at a facility in the desert outside the central city of Natanz, where it has about 500 centrifuges above and below ground. But the announcement never materialized, leading to speculation that Tehran might be slowing activities in an attempt to blunt fresh Security Council action.
ElBaradei on Monday said Tehran appeared to have at least temporarily paused in expanding its uranium-enrichment program in comments seemingly linked to a slowing of such activities. “I do not believe that the number of centrifuges has increased, nor do I believe that (new) nuclear material has been introduced to the centrifuges at Natanz,” he told reporters, referring to the site housing Tehran’s enrichment program and the machines used for enrichment. But underlining that any pause was informal and temporary, ElBaradei, in separate comments, repeated the main finding of his recent report on Iran, saying that “Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities” as demanded by the Security Council. That report was up for review Wednesday by the board. And on Tuesday Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran’s “legitimate activities with the aim of producing fuel is continuing.” The board was expected to approve last month’s decision by ElBaradei to partially or fully suspend nearly half the technical aid his agency provides to Iran, 23 projects in all. Only North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq have faced such punishment in the past. The board also will be reviewing North Korea’s apparent willingness to ultimately dismantle its nuclear arms-making capabilities and a planned visit to Pyongyang by ElBaradei after the end of the Vienna meeting.