Iran backs off from threat to UN nuclear watchdog over uranium enrichment
TEHRAN (AFP) Jun 19, 2004
Iran on Saturday reacted angrily to being slapped with yet more criticism from the UN's nuclear watchdog, but after several hours backed away from a threat to resume its highly sensitive uranium enrichment activities.

In a news conference, top national security official and nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani first said the resolution passed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Friday had forced the Islamic republic to review its key pledge.

"In the next few days, Iran is going to reconsider its decision to suspend enrichment," Rowhani told reporters.

But in an apparent U-turn later, the state news agency IRNA carried revised comments from the cleric and head of the Supreme National Secutiy Council.

"We do not want to carry out enrichment for the time being and no decision has yet been taken to resume it, but we will reconsider the suspension of other activities," he was quoted as saying.

The official news agency said Rowhani's new comments meant that "Iran will apparently resume the production of centrifuge components" rather than resume enrichment itself.

IRNA did not explain Rowhani's changed stance, although the revision of public statements from top officials is common practice here and often leads to confusion.

Iran agreed last year to suspend enrichment following pressure from the IAEA, which is trying to verify whether Iran's nuclear programme is purely peaceful as Tehran asserts or a cover for weapons development as the United States alleges.

In particular, the IAEA is trying to account for traces of highly enriched uranium found by inspectors here. Highly enriched uranium can be used for both civil and military purposes.

The suspension was part of a package of "confidence-building measures" brokered by Britain, France and Germany, which also included Iran allowing tougher inspections by signing the additional protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

But Rowhani said the European Union's "big three" had failed to keep their side of the bargain and had only stepped up pressure.

Reflecting frustrations voiced by IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the three sponsored a text passed Friday that deplored the level of Iranian cooperation and called for the IAEA's 15-month-old probe to be wrapped up within a few months.

"The Europeans had pledged that the Iranian file would be closed, and they have not met the commitments," Rowhani had complained earlier in the day.

However, Rowhani did pledge the country would not cut cooperation altogether.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran will respect the NPT agreement and will not withdraw from it, and will work within the framework of the safeguards and will continue to implement the additional protocol," he told reporters in comments that were not revised later in the day.

The Islamic republic, lumped into an "axis of evil" by US President George W. Bush, has consistently asserted its nuclear programme is designed to meet future energy needs.

The IAEA has also pressed Iran to widen its suspension of enrichment to all related activities, including uranium conversion in Isfahan and construction of a heavy water reactor in Arak.

These demands go beyond the terms of the NPT, and have angered Tehran and led some hardliners to call for Iran to follow the path of North Korea and withdraw from the NPT.

"The Islamic republic considers that the activities at Arak and Isfahan are within its rights, and has no need to reconsider them," said Rowhani in his press conference. "Iran will continue the activities at Arak and Isfahan."

Rowhani, however, did welcome the prospect of a tough round of inspections over the summer.

"The more inspections there are, the more the world will know that Iran is sincere and that it is our enemies who are wrong," he said.

Iranian officials commonly use "enemies" to refer to the United States and Israel.

"According to us, the problem can be resolved, but it is up to the agency to make more of an effort," he added, demanding the issue be wrapped up when the IAEA's board next meets in September.

In his later remarks carried by IRNA, Rowhani suggested that Iran and the European states could have fresh talks in July, and he said Iran "will give this chance to them".