- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

TEHRAN — A leading Iranian cleric’s call for his country to consider withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has raised fresh fears that Iran will ignore an international deadline to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a hard-liner who heads the Guardian Council, the most powerful governing body, said during prayers at Tehran University on Friday that Iran should defy demands for tougher nuclear inspections.

He said Iran should not sign an extra protocol to the treaty, demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The protocol would allow spot checks on its nuclear facilities to ensure they are not used for developing weapons.

In comments that reflect a growing internal struggle over Tehran’s response, he said such inspections would be an extra humiliation.

“What is wrong with considering this treaty on nuclear energy and pulling out of it?” he asked. “North Korea withdrew. Many countries have never entered it.”

Ayatollah Jannati’s comparison with North Korea, which has rebuffed the IAEA and begun building nuclear weapons, heightened alarm among Western diplomats that hard-liners in Tehran would take Iran in the same direction.

It emerged last week that Britain, France and Germany had secretly offered to share nuclear technology with Iran if it accepted tougher nuclear inspections and scrapped its uranium enrichment program, a key step toward building nuclear weapons.

The offer was made last month despite strong objections from the United States. Iran reacted coolly, diplomats said, creating the united front between the United States and Europe that led the IAEA last week to impose an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to prove that it has no nuclear weapons program.

IAEA and U.N. inspectors will fly to Iran next weekend to discuss how the protocol would be enforced.

The debate in Iran over how to respond is pitting senior clerics allied with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, against the more reform-minded government led by President Mohammad Khatami — which says it is considering signing the protocol and insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

Iranian officials said yesterday that Ayatollah Jannati was out of step with the government.

Reformists want the government to sign the protocol after it has held more talks with the IAEA. Diplomats believe that the final decision will be made by Ayatollah Khamenei, who is more likely to rebuff the international pressure.

The United States is particularly alarmed at Iran’s plans for its 1,000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear power plant, which is being developed with the help of Russia.

On Friday Moscow said its nuclear cooperation talks with Iran, intended to clear the way for shipments of Russian nuclear fuel to the plant, could take a long time to finalize — a signal welcomed by Washington.

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