VIENNA, Austria — After 18 years of concealing a nuclear program from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency and four years of fruitless talks with the international community, Iran has pledged to come clean with facts to back up its claim that it isn't seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
But the Bush administration, wary of any Iranian moves short of an immediate halt to its nuclear enrichment program, will attempt to convince other major powers Friday to impose tougher United Nations sanctions on Tehran.
The question of whether Iran will have the time it seeks to clear the air over its nuclear program will be central at the Washington talks, which the State Department announced even as the International Atomic Energy Agency announced a "work plan" to reconstruct Iran's past activities.
The talks, to be held at the level of Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the third ranking official at the State Department, got a boost Thursday when French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that if current sanctions weren't sufficient, "I want stronger sanctions."
But Iran has said that if there are additional sanctions, it will scuttle the new "work plan" reached with the IAEA last month.
If all goes according to the IAEA plan, Iran will respond by late November to a five-page U.N. questionnaire on a variety of questions, including unexplained activities at a uranium mine, its holdings in plutonium and polonium, and other issues in its nuclear fuel-enrichment program. It also agreed to accept additional IAEA inspectors to verify the facts.
Instead of winning kudos for what he considers a breakthrough in the tense dealings with Iran, however, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei came under immediate criticism from the United States and several European governments for reaching a deal that failed to halt Iran's nuclear-enrichment program. But no one publicly rejected the work plan.
It seems unlikely that the senior diplomats from China, France, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — and Germany will agree at this time to impose the third set of sanctions against Iran since last December.
A British Foreign Office official — who said he couldn't be named because of the sensitive nature of the topic — noted that, "What we all want to avoid is a war with Iran; the work plan with Iran is simply not good enough. It doesn't address the suspension of uranium enrichment. Until they've done that, we want new, stricter sanctions."
Still, the major players have to be unanimous to apply stronger sanctions, and that appears unlikely unless Russia and China change stances, as officials from both countries indicated support this week for ElBaradei's plan and further diplomacy.
Bengt Olav Johansen, the Norwegian ambassador to the IAEA, voiced a common concern among diplomats here that while the Security Council must be firm, the timing of the U.S. drive for further sanctions is off, by a month or so.
"The work plan is a positive sign. We have to wait and see how this develops," he said. "The plan needs to be given a month or two. If the evidence shows there is no progress by then, it is a different matter."
The plan doesn't require Iran to cease enriching uranium with its 2,000-plus operating centrifuges. The centrifuges are said to be enriching uranium gas to the low levels needed for research and power generation, but they're capable of highly enriching uranium to weapons-grade. While Iran isn't thought to have the capacity to build a weapon, it could have enough enriched uranium to arm one within two years if its current centrifuges work at full capacity.
Although the program began secretly, IAEA inspectors recently have had access to much of what they wish to study, including 58 military sites.
Iran says the program is peaceful and that no evidence has been found to the contrary. Traces of highly enriched uranium were found on some of the centrifuges, but the IAEA traced that to residue from Pakistan, the original home of the centrifuge parts.
There's grave concern in the West that the Iranians won't follow through with the plan and are merely buying time to advance their program. And nobody believes that Iran is blameless, noting that it's willfully destroyed international trust in the past.
But in recent days, ElBaradei — who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his efforts to stop nuclear energy from being used for military purposes — said he was concerned by the rhetoric surrounding the Iranian issue.
"Sanctions alone will not lead to a durable solution," he said this week in Vienna.
He added that the world will know by November whether Iran is serious about a peaceful nuclear program.
"We are dealing with the root causes by clarifying the past, and clarifying the present," he said. "We need to be cool. We need to pay attention to the facts on the ground."
Other countries fear that tough international restrictions on enrichment technology would close off legitimate nuclear-research options for them.
One diplomat, who's been deeply involved in the Iranian crisis and who said he couldn't give his name because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said the U.S.-led insistence that Iran stop all enrichment before negotiations began had led to no negotiations, even as Iran was steadily building centrifuges.
"The deeper problem we have in these negotiations is the very negative recent history of the United States and Iran," he said. "These negotiations were never going to go well. The U.S. arrived talking about regime change and calling for immediate sanctions. We need to step back, on both sides, or we're going to end up in a very bad place, and for no real reason."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007