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US, Europe differ on Iran strategy
Updated: 2004-09-15 09:19

A US-European rift surfaced Tuesday over how harshly to deal with Iran and its suspect nuclear program, with the Europeans ignoring American suggestions and circulating their own recommendations to other delegates at a key meeting of the UN atomic agency.

Diplomats at a board of governors meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency had suggested earlier that the United States and the European Union were making progress in drafting common language for a resolution that would set a deadline for Iran to meet demands designed to dispel fears it was trying to make nuclear arms.

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei reads a paper during the morning session of a meeting of IAEA's board governors at Vienna's International Center, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2004. [AP]
But the latest draft was nearly exactly the one that France, Britain and Germany came up with Friday — a text that US officials had said would be unacceptable.

The American suggestions also were made available. They demand Iran grant agency inspectors "complete, immediate and unrestricted access;" provide "full information" about past illegal nuclear activities; suspend "immediately and fully" uranium enrichment and related activities; and meet all agency demands to "resolve all outstanding issues" nurturing suspicions of a possible weapons program.

The IAEA meeting has become the main battleground between Iran and Washington, which wants to take Iran before the UN Security Council for alleged violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The Americans asked the draft include an October 31 deadline. The EU text remained vaguer in demands and in a time frame, asking only that IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei submit a comprehensive report before November for evaluation by the board.

ElBaradei shrugged off the idea of a deadline.

"We cannot just say there is a magic date," for an end to his agency's Iran probe, he said. He also repeated that his investigation has not definitely established whether Iran is trying to make nuclear arms — as Washington asserts.

"We haven't seen any concrete proof that there is a weapons program," ElBaradei told reporters on the second day of the board meeting. "Can we say everything is peaceful? Obviously we are not at that stage."

Revelations of the rift were expected to prove embarrassing to the Americans. They had expressed confidence they would be able to win over the Europeans and had flown in a team close to US Undersecretary of State John Bolton for the board meeting — effectively sidelining the Vienna-based US mission that usually handles such conferences.

The Americans "introduced amendments that were beyond what the market would bear," said one senior Western diplomat who tracks the IAEA. "The European draft is right now going to have support."

Bolton, the US point-man on nuclear nonproliferation, is considered tough on Iran by most European delegations at the board meeting in the Austrian capital. The diplomat suggested the Washington team "doesn't perhaps have a good sense of what the Vienna audience can accept."

A diplomat representing one of the 25 EU countries said part of the problem was that the Americans came in with modifications after the European Union thought they were happy with the original draft written by France, Germany and Britain.

"We thought we had something with the Americans and they came in with further amendments," said the diplomat, who, like others, said on condition of anonymity.

The diplomats acknowledged the draft was still far from any final version being prepared for formal introduction to the board and said it may well include some of the American suggestions.

But they said the tone of some of the US demands — and delays in presenting them — meant that a final resolution on Iran would not come before close to the end of the week. They also held open the possibility that Europe and the United States might not be able to bridge their differences, a development that would be unprecedented since the UN watchdog started looking at Iran's nuclear dossier two years ago.

Indirectly exploiting the US-European differences, Iran on Tuesday warned against attempts to force it to freeze uranium enrichment, with a senior envoy asserting his country had a right to what Washington claims is a key component of a secret nuclear weapons program.

"Nothing should be imposed against (Iran's) legitimate right" to enrich uranium, Hossein Mousavian, Iran's chief IAEA delegate said.

Mousavian suggested his country's ratification of an agreement with the IAEA that would commit it to giving agency inspectors fuller and faster access to nuclear sites and files could be jeopardized if the board agrees on a deadline on enrichment.

Iran has been acting as if the agreement were already in force but has held off ratification in parliament. Mousavian said lawmakers would be "very concerned" if the deadline were imposed.

Iran is not prohibited from enrichment under its obligations to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but Tehran has faced mounting international pressure to suspend the technology — which can be used both to make nuclear arms or generate electricity — as a gesture to dispel suspicions it is interested in making weapons.

Last week, Iran confirmed an IAEA report that it planned to convert more than 40 tons of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride, the feed stock for enrichment.

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