Monday, August 28, 2006

The Bush administration plans to move rapidly to organize and impose international economic sanctions on Iran, but not until after a Thursday U.N. deadline passes, according to Bush administration officials.

A senior official who has reviewed Iran’s 21-page response said there is still hope Iran will agree before then to stop enriching uranium, although there are no indications Tehran is ready to do so. The Iranian response, sent privately last week to several nations, contains numerous references to how Iran is moving forward with its plans for uranium enrichment.

“Clearly, it falls short of meeting the condition that was set,” the senior official said. “That condition was full suspension of enrichment activity.”

International economic sanctions likely will be imposed after passage of a United Nations Security Council Chapter 7 resolution, and sanctions will be applied in stages.

The initial sanctions are expected to target Iran’s weapons of mass destruction and missile programs and will be designed to make it more difficult for officials of the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to travel abroad and conduct business abroad.

A coalition of nations in Europe and Asia also is being organized to impose sanctions on Iran should the U.N. Security Council fail to take action after Thursday. Tougher sanctions will be imposed later if Iran continues to reject controls on its nuclear program and halt uranium enrichment.

The goal of sanctions will be to persuade Iran’s government to suspend its enrichment activities, not to punish the Iranian people, the senior official said,.

Meanwhile, the officials said the State Department, White House and Pentagon are at odds over whether to give Iran another chance to halt enrichment activities.

Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, is working to persuade Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to agree to a plan by the governments of Britain, France and Germany to send Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, back to Tehran for talks before the Thursday deadline.

The Europeans are arguing that if Iran is willing to discuss suspension of enrichment, then the three European governments will not pursue immediate sanctions. The planned concession is opposed by officials at the Pentagon and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, who oppose making any further concessions to the Iranians because of Tehran’s continued defiance.

The Iranian response was made after Europeans, the United States and China offered Iran a package of incentives, including trade offers and regional security arrangements, to give up uranium enrichment outside International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls. Russia and China, either of which could veto any Security Council moves against Iran, oppose sanctions.

The administration is encouraged by support from the governments of France, Germany and Britain for sanctions, although it is not clear whether tough action will be taken to punish Iran this week or next, the senior official said.

The U.S. intelligence community estimates that the enrichment activities will give Iran, under the guise of a civilian electricity-generating program, the ability to produce nuclear weapons within four years.

“Their nuclear program is continuing,” a second official said. “They have set the goal of having 3,000 centrifuges in place by end of year, or early next year. They are having some technical difficulties, but they have also shown themselves to be very capable in terms of their own science and technology and in terms of solving problems.”

Yesterday, Iran’s nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani stated that the Islamic republic would not stop uranium enrichment despite the U.N. deadline, Reuters reported from Tehran. “Iran will continue its uranium enrichment,” he said. “We want to produce our own nuclear fuel. We will never stop it.”

U.S. officials said the Iranian response to the United Nations has been to say that any preconditions on Iran are unfair and something they cannot accept.

“Two decades of denial, deception and concealment [on the nuclear program] has made a pretty convincing case for IAEA and others that they are pursuing nuclear weapons,” the senior official said.

Much of Iran’s secret nuclear arms program is located at an underground facility at Natanz, where IAEA inspectors were denied access last week. The facility is the site of a planned centrifuge cascade — a large number of machines that spin uranium gas into small quantities of enriched uranium.

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian nuclear official stated in an interview published in Iran yesterday that a nuclear research facility in Natanz and the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan are operating uninterrupted.

Mohammad Saidi, deputy director of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran, told the Tehran newspaper E’temad-e Melli that Tehran’s response last week was “comprehensive and conducive to the resumption of talks for creating an ultimate agreement.”

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