Tehran’s resumed nuclear research plan ‘irreversible’

Hamid-Reza Asefi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, yesterday insisted Tehran’s resumption of nuclear research was “irreversible”, despite a meeting of European Union and US officials and their Chinese and Russian counterparts in London today to consider action against Tehran.

Germany, France and Britain, who led the EU in talks with Tehran on curbing the nuclear programme, will join the US in arguing at today’s meeting with China and Russia that Iran should be referred to the UN Security Council, a step that could eventually lead to sanctions, despite Tehran’s warning on Friday this would prompt it to end its acceptance of snap UN inspections of its atomic facilities.

Iran’s decision to restart work at the Natanz plant last week provoked a furious reaction from Europe, prompting the UK, France and Germany to declare their talks with Iran had now reached a dead end and to launch a diplomatic campaign to refer the dispute to the UN Security Council. Defending the resumption, Iran’s foreign ministry on Saturday said Tehran remained open for negotiations and was still suspending “fuel production”, the enrichment needed for power generation or potentially, says the west, a bomb.

But European and US diplomats say Iran must reverse in full last week’s decision if it wants to return to talks. They insist that restarting any enrichment-related activity including small-scaled enrichment at a pilot project at the Natanz plant – even if for research purposes – would bring Tehran closer to mastering the nuclear technology needed for the production of fuel or atomic weapons.

In Washington yesterday, Senator John McCain, an influential Republican on foreign policy, yesterday echoed comments from President George W. Bush in calling the situation in Iran the “gravest threat”. In an interview on CBS News he said, “This is the most grave situation we have faced since the end of the cold war, absent the war on terror,” and backed calls for Iran to be referred to the Security Council.

“We must go to the UN now for sanctions . . . if China and Russia do not join us, we will have to go with the willing. The only thing that is worse than US exercising its military option is a nuclear-armed Iran. We need to do whatever is necessary.”

Tehran is set to appoint three experienced diplomats as ambassadors to France, Germany and the UK. European officials had expressed fears that fundamentalists close to the president would follow the previous envoys, removed in October in a sweeping change.

But the choice for Paris is Ali Ahani, ambassador to the EU and Luxembourg; the new envoy in London will be Rasoul Movahedian, former ambassador to the Czech Republic and Portugal; and Mohammad-Mehdi Akhoundzadeh, Iran’s ambassador to international bodies in Vienna including the International Atomic Energy Agency, will go to Berlin.

One senior official in Tehran said the three ambassadors might lack the authority and experience of their predecessors but were not considered radicals. “They are technocrats – not seasoned diplomats, but experienced enough,” said the official.

The diplomatic move came amid suggestions that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, was seeking to temper the radicalism of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who has caused huge controversy since taking over in August.

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