- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Iran’s minister of finance said yesterday that his country’s quest for nuclear energy is an integral part of its plan to become a regional economic powerhouse and has nothing to do with offensive weapons.

There is intense international debate about Iran’s need for an indigenous nuclear-energy program, given its oil reserves, and observers say that unemployment is more likely driving the need to open the economy.

A top Iranian nuclear official said yesterday in Tehran that the country already had processed several tons of the gas needed to enrich uranium, a necessary step toward producing nuclear fuel, or weapons.

“We have used part of the raw uranium we had. A few tons of yellowcake has been converted ,” Hossein Mousavian, Iran’s top delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency told the Associated Press.

The United States repeatedly has accused Iran of trying to build a nuclear bomb and has tried to get the international community to bring Tehran before the United Nations for its nuclear activities.

Iran, a net oil producer, insists its nuclear efforts are peaceful.

“We are not interested in employing nuclear weapons,” Iranian Minister of Finance Tahmasb Mazaheri said during an interview at the Iranian Interests Section in Washington. “We are just seeking the peaceful utilization of this energy [and] in fact, it has many economic impacts.”

Mr. Mazaheri said that Iran was in line with the IAEA, and had opened its industry to IAEA inspectors and monitors. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has agreed that, so far, Iran does not appear to have produced any weapons-grade uranium.

Although Iran is among the world’s top-10 oil producers, Mr. Mazaheri said the country wanted to diversify its energy base to support its growing economy.

“We should replace oil revenues with another source of energy, because it is a political commodity; so we should employ some other instruments to make the development of the country eaisier,” the minister argued.

He said that despite U.S. sanctions, Iran’s economy had grown over the past four years at a rate of 5.5 percent, creating roughly 550,000 jobs a year.

Standards of living had risen and women were participating in the economy to a greater degree than in neighboring countries, he said.

“The government policy is one of privatization, and to move to a competitive, market-oriented economy,” said Mr. Mazaheri. “The engine of the economy will be the private sector in close interaction with the international markets.”

“Our aim is to be the first-ranking economy in the region,” Mr. Mazaheri said.

But Cliff Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center, said Iran was under tremendous pressure to provide jobs for its youth, and as yet there had been little actual movement away from the state-dominated economy.

“Sixty percent of the population is under 30 and unemployment is high,” said Mr. Kupchan. “Their main Achilles heel is providing jobs.”

He added that most observers of Iran say the country has yet to lay out a convincing plan to move from a state-dominated economy to a private-sector-led economy.

The United States applied sanctions in 1996 prohibiting American companies from investing in Iran in response to Tehran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems, as well as its support for terrorism.

But Mr. Mazaheri said foreign companies have filled the gap.

France, Germany and Italy are the leading foreign investors in Iran, pouring money into oil and gas as well as the food processsing, petrochemical and industrial sectors.

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