Scott Peterson

The diplomatic tussle over Iran’s controversial atomic programme has heated up in advance of a meeting Thursday of the UN’s nuclear watchdog. Iran’s parliament passed a bill last Monday that would oblige the government to “stop voluntary and non-legally binding measures,” such as intrusive snap UN weapons inspections, and to resume uranium enrichment if Iran is referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. Diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna say there is little chance that Iran will be sent to the Council this time, despite a September IAEA resolution that found Iran in non-compliance. But despite tough rhetoric about its right to enrich uranium for nuclear power — and Iranian resumption last week of uranium conversion, contrary to IAEA requests — Iran has taken several recent cooperative steps, including granting full access to several suspect sites that include a military high-explosives facility at Parchin.

Two compromise solutions are now in play, a Moscow one backed by President Bush, and a broader one from the IAEA to create internationally monitored nuclear fuel facilities. The Russian plan recognises Iran’s right to nuclear fuel technology, but denies it the ability to enrich uranium to levels suitable for bombs. Iran would process the uranium ore into gas, then send it to Russia for enrichment; spent fuel from the reactor would be returned to Russia. Though Tehran has not dismissed the proposals, it says it should fully control its own nuclear fuel cycle. The latest report by the IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei notes that Iran had been “more forthcoming,” adding however that Tehran’s “full transparency is indispensable and overdue.” Perhaps more significant is the discovery of a design experts say could only be used for a nuclear weapon. Critics say it is proof of Iran’s ambition to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iranian officials say the plan was unsolicited, and part of a black-market offer made by the nuclear network of Pakistani A Q Khan to Iran in 1987. One source familiar with the document says it is of an “old-fashioned” Chinese design, consistent with blueprints sold to Libya by the Khan network in the 1980s. The IAEA report notes it deals with “the casting and machining of enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispherical forms.”

One Western source says it is “not a core of a weapon,” as has been described in some media reports, but an element used to increase the yield of a nuclear blast by slowing down the process. There are no dimensions, he says, but it would be large. Still, many questions remain. ElBaradei’s report repeats the call to suspend enrichment-related activities, and notes “no new developments with regard to questions and access” at a site at Lavisan-Shian. Iran has signed but not ratified the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows for snap inspections of any suspect site. EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said the vote in Iran’s parliament was “not good news.” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy — whose nation, with Britain and Germany, was in talks with Iran until August — said “negative signals” were coming from Tehran. But Security Council action is unlikely, as Russia and China oppose such a move.