WASHINGTON—Iran says the economic incentives it's being offered to restrain its nuclear program are laughable, and it's threatening to resume production of uranium gas, the first step in the process of enriching fuel for power plants and nuclear warheads.
Britain, France and Germany warn that they'll join the United States to seek possible United Nations Security Council sanctions against Tehran if it abandons a November 2004 deal under which it temporarily suspended all uranium enrichment-related activities.
The British, French and German foreign ministers were to meet Wednesday in Geneva with Iran's top nuclear negotiator in a last-ditch bid to break the impasse that has deadlocked talks on the Iranian nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi complained anew Tuesday that the Europeans had failed to offer Iran sufficient incentives to continue the negotiations.
"The European side was not successful in taking determining and constructive steps ... but Iran is still ready to remove the current stalemate," Kharrazi was quoted by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency as saying in Isfahan, the site of the uranium gas facility that Iran threatened earlier this month to restart.
Kharrazi indicated that Iran was sticking to its stand that it has a right to uranium enrichment as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the keystone of the international system to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The NPT gives non-nuclear weapons states access to civilian nuclear technology.
The United States, Britain, France and Germany are demanding that Iran abandon its enrichment program because it kept the effort secret for two decades contrary to NPT requirements, prompting concerns that it's developing nuclear weapons.
Iran says its nuclear program is only for electricity production.
Enrichment involves converting uranium ore into a gas that's fed into high-speed centrifuges. The result is low-enriched uranium for power plants or, if the gas is run through the centrifuges longer, highly enriched uranium for weapons.
In a policy shift in March, President Bush endorsed a European offer to sell Iran spare parts for its Western-made aircraft and support its bid to enter the World Trade Organization in return for giving up uranium enrichment.
Iran spurned the offer as paltry. It insists that it will never give up uranium enrichment, but says it would accept internationally monitored restrictions in return for access to advanced European-made civilian nuclear technology and other deals.
Some experts believe that the Bush administration, which refuses to hold direct talks with the Iranians, should agree to a major expansion of the European offer.
But Washington has rejected such an approach.
"There is no reason to believe that extra incentives offered by the United States at this point would make a real difference," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told a May 19 congressional hearing. "We believe that Iran needs to face the united will of the international community."
A collapse in the European-Iranian negotiations could embroil Bush in an unpredictable new crisis just as he's striving to avert a confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear program, staunch the mayhem in Iraq and stabilize Afghanistan.
The Geneva talks "are crucial in the sense that if the Iranians decide to go back into the enrichment business, then a crisis will be precipitated," said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "It's a crisis that no one wants."
That's because the consequences could be extremely serious.
The U.N. Security Council could find itself divided. China and Russia, which have veto power on the council, might oppose sanctions because they have major financial interests in Iran. Russia earlier this year agreed to supply Iran with fuel for its Bushehr nuclear plant, raising questions about why Iran wants its own enrichment program.
If approved, sanctions could result in higher gas prices. Sanctions would almost certainly hit Iran's oil industry, which pumps some 3 million barrels per day into the international market.
Iranian officials have threatened unspecified retaliatory measures if the United States and the Europeans ask the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.
Iran could expel IAEA inspectors working to ensure that the Islamic regime isn't secretly developing nuclear arms.
Iran also has the ability to seriously complicate U.S.-led efforts to stem the bloodshed in neighboring Iraq.
While the Bush administration says it has no plans to use military force to cripple the Iranian nuclear program, it hasn't ruled out any options.
In a radio interview in January, Vice President Dick Cheney warned that Israel might strike Iran's nuclear facilities, just as it did with Iraq in 1981, if it became convinced that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. It isn't clear, however, whether the Israeli air force has enough long-distance capability to carry out attacks on multiple targets in Iran.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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