- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

NEW YORK — Cracks appeared yesterday in the U.S.-European diplomatic drive to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons programs as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to reveal a new compromise to the U.N. General Assembly today.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday that Paris would not object to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s suggestion that Iran share its nuclear energy technology with other Islamic countries, as long as the Iranian program fully adhered to the international treaty against nuclear proliferation.

That comment came after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials said the idea of Iran sharing nuclear technology with anyone only underscored the dangers of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Denis Simonneau, spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Paris yesterday that France had no objection to Iran sharing nuclear energy technology “so long as it remains under the terms of the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty].”

“Each signatory to the treaty can cooperate with other nations” under the terms of the pact, said Mr. Simonneau, if they adhere to the rules against developing or exporting military nuclear material.

But Miss Rice, in an interview with NBC News that was released yesterday, said Mr. Ahmadinejad’s idea of sharing Iranian nuclear technology showed again why Tehran’s nuclear programs must be halted.

“Generally, that’s called proliferation and so I would think that would probably not be within the responsibilities of a state operating within the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty],” she said. “I hope people were listening.”

The United States and the group known as EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) had been united in a push to halt Iran’s clandestine efforts to enrich uranium, a critical step in the development of nuclear weapons.

Iran, an oil-rich nation, insists its nuclear programs are intended for peaceful civilian energy uses, but the United States thinks Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons.

The EU powers had taken the diplomatic lead, offering a combination of political and economic sweeteners if Tehran curbed its nuclear programs and agreed to international inspections.

But the campaign to pressure Iran has faltered internationally. Opposition from China, Russia and others has undercut a drive by the Bush administration and its allies for a quick referral by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, of the Iran question to the Security Council a necessary first step for punitive sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with President Bush at the White House yesterday, sidestepped a question of whether Russia would back a Security Council referral next week, saying he had been told directly by Mr. Ahmadinejad in a private meeting here Thursday that Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons.

Mr. Bush said there was a strong international consensus that Iran should not be allowed to obtain nuclear arms.

“I am confident that the world will see to it that Iran goes to the U.N. Security Council if it does not live up to its agreements,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad reportedly will offer to bring in major international partners for its nuclear programs as a way to ease fears that its efforts could be secretly diverted to making nuclear bombs.

European diplomats in Vienna yesterday confirmed an account that first appeared in the British Financial Times that Iran is proposing to form “joint ventures” for its nuclear programs, perhaps including control of the critical uranium-enrichment process.

The model appears to be the Russian-built nuclear plant near the southern Iranian city of Bushehr. Moscow has tried to ease intense U.S. concerns about the plant by keeping control of the spent fuel the site will generate, material that could be diverted to make weapons.

Not clear is the extent of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s compromise or whether it would cover a network of secret nuclear sites that Iran only recently was forced to admit existed.

EU-3 foreign ministers and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with Mr. Ahmadinejad and top Iranian negotiators Thursday, offering no firm verdict on the Iranian proposal.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the ministers had a “frank discussion,” and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the European incentive package “remained on the table.” The little-known Mr. Ahmadinejad, an Islamic hard-liner who was the surprise winner in the presidential election in June, has been a star attraction of the massive United Nations summit.

Although shunned by U.S. officials, he met with the American press, with Mr. Putin, with Mr. Annan and European officials, and with leaders from Turkey, Nigeria and Kuwait, among other countries.

James Lakely contributed to this report from Washington.

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