Monday, August 21, 2006

Facing a self-imposed deadline today to respond to a U.S.-backed offer to suspend its nuclear programs, Iran yesterday blocked international inspectors from a key research site and vowed once more never to surrender its atomic energy programs.

President Bush called for strong international action if Tehran turns down a compromise offer to suspend its uranium enrichment programs in exchange for trade and other concessions, but Western diplomats were increasingly pessimistic about a deal.

Mr. Bush told a White House press conference there has to be “consequences” if Iran refuses to bargain over its nuclear programs, including new sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. Iran says its nuclear programs are for civilian energy, but the United States and its allies maintain the Islamic republic is secretly trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

Saying he wanted to solve the standoff diplomatically, Mr. Bush declared, “Dates are fine, but what really matters is will.”

The signals coming out of Tehran in recent days have not been encouraging.

Western diplomats at the Vienna, Austria-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said yesterday that Iran was blocking access for IAEA inspectors to a major facility in Natanz, a violation of Iran’s obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The heavily fortified site uses gas centrifuges to enrich uranium, which then could be used for either civilian or military purposes.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a leading foreign policy voice in Iran’s parliament, told the official Iranian news agency yesterday that lawmakers may restrict access to other nuclear sites if sanctions are imposed.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a television interview in Tehran that Iran would not give up its nuclear programs, despite U.S. and U.N. pressure.

Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, said even a temporary halt in Iran’s uranium enrichment program — the basic demand of the international offer — was not acceptable.

“Considering the technical achievement of Iranian scientists, the suspension of uranium enrichment is not possible anymore,” he told Reuters news agency.

The five permanent U.N. Security Council powers — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — and Germany presented the incentives package in June, including an offer by the Bush administration for limited direct talks with Tehran, in exchange for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear enrichment work.

Ignoring Western demands for an answer, Iranian leaders said they would present a written reply to European diplomats by today. The Security Council voted at the end of last month to set an Aug. 31 deadline for a final reply or face new sanctions.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he hoped Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s hard-line president, would give a response that would keep the negotiations on track.

“But I also have to say that after the events this week, I am skeptical,” Mr. Steinmeier told reporters during a visit to Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul.

Analysts say it is unlikely Iran will give a flat yes or no to the nuclear offer, forcing the United States and its partners to coordinate their own response. Sanctions against Iran likely would meet resistance from Russia, China and other countries that have oil ties and extensive business contacts with Iran.

Iran’s response also could provide one of the first clues to how the recent Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon has scrambled diplomatic and security calculations in the region.

Iran is closely allied with Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militia, and many in Tehran celebrated what they said was Hezbollah’s unexpectedly strong showing against Israel’s fabled military in the 34-day fight.

Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Iran’s answer on the nuclear offer was likely to be “more no than yes,” in part because hard-liners who favor confrontation with the United States and its allies now had the upper hand because of Lebanon.

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