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Last Updated: Friday, 12 August 2005, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
Iran nuclear row: No end in sight
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC News diplomatic correspondent

It was more a case of crisis delayed rather than crisis averted.

Two technicians carry a box containing yellowcake at the Iranian nuclear facility at Isfahan
Iran says its nuclear programme is for purely peaceful purposes

Iran still seems to be on a collision course with the US and key European governments. But quite when the "diplomatic impact" will occur is far from clear.

The row over Iran's nuclear programme highlights the complexity of dealing with the Islamic Republic; a problem made more intractable by the consolidation of power in the hands of conservatives following the country's recent presidential election.

Washington's freedom of manoeuvre is also circumscribed by its entanglement in Iraq.

US President George W Bush's response to Iran's latest gambit was by no means as negative or strident as it could have been - he seized readily upon his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pledge that his country did have new ideas to offer.

Crossing lines

With violence continuing in Iraq and the constitution drafting process there at such a critical stage, the last thing Mr Bush needs is for the Iranians to de-stabilise the country further.

NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE
Mined uranium ore is purified and reconstituted into solid form known as yellowcake
Yellowcake is converted into a gas by heating it to about 64C (147F)
Gas is fed through centrifuges, where its isotopes separate and process is repeated until uranium is enriched
Low-level enriched uranium is used for nuclear fuel
Highly enriched uranium can be used in nuclear weapons

So, what happens now? The Iranians appear unwilling to agree to the International Atomic Energy Agency's call for them to halt uranium conversion activity.

But, so far, Tehran has been very careful about crossing red lines.

And for this reason it may not yet be willing to resume work at its uranium enrichment plant, at least for now.

Iran, of course, insists that it has no desire to have nuclear weapons.

There are arguments about why it should really want a nuclear programme at all.

It has abundant oil and gas reserves. But even if nuclear power can be justified many experts wonder why, apart from abstract notions of national sovereignty, Iran should insist upon having the ability to manufacture its own nuclear fuel.

Denting confidence

Since the self-same enrichment capability might yield material for a nuclear bomb, the Americans and their European allies say that the only way confidence can be restored is for Iran to give up such ambitions; to obtain its nuclear reactor fuel from outside and then return it to the supplier for re-processing.

Iran says, correctly, that it is quite entitled to have such a capacity under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation regime, providing of course its activities are fully monitored and it is seen as behaving properly.

Iran's efforts to obscure much of its early nuclear programme has certainly dented that international confidence.

Here you have a clash between the letter of the non-proliferation regime and the spirit of the treaty.

Iran, if a member of the NPT regime in good-standing, certainly could have a nuclear fuel cycle.

But the non-proliferation regime was clearly never intended to provide countries with the building blocks for a bomb.

Indeed, the non-proliferation architecture is widely seen as deficient and failing.

The IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, strongly believes that the spread of fuel cycle activities is a bad thing.

US pressure

But it is hard to see how this can be enshrined in an international agreement, as commercial as well as political considerations are involved.

So the Iran dossier has been kicked forward into September.

In the meantime, the diplomats have a huge job to do.

The Iranians will be trying to persuade non-aligned countries on the IAEA that they really are trying to address the criticisms of their past activities.

And the Europeans and the Americans will be lobbying hard, insisting that eventually there may be no other course but to refer the matter to the Security Council.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Hear Iran's chief delegate defend his country's position



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