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Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Monday, 29 June 2009 11:48 UK

Election row hits Iran nuclear talks

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Prospects for negotiations over Iran's nuclear activities appear bleak after the reassertion of power by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian technician works at Bushehr nuclear plant, 25 February 2009
Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr is close to going online

Having shown the stern face of his government domestically, he is hardly likely to compromise abroad.

The UN Security Council is demanding that Iran suspend its enrichment of uranium and has imposed three layers of sanctions on Iran. It says Iran needs to build confidence that it is not intending to make a nuclear weapon.

Mr Ahmadinejad has said since the election (as he said many times before it) that the issue of enrichment is closed. Iran says it is exercising its right to enrichment and that it does not intend to develop a nuclear bomb, only nuclear energy.

A harsh exchange with US President Barack Obama has also soured an atmosphere that had grown softer when the President Obama offered of an "extended hand" if the Iranians "unclenched their fists".

Mr Obama has said he is "appalled and outraged" at the threats, beatings and imprisonment in Iran since the election, though he did not directly question the result. President Ahmadinejad hit back by saying this was the kind of thing that "previously Bush used to say".

Technically Iran has not formally replied to President Obama's offer of talks, so - in theory at least - there is still hope that things might change.

Freeze-freeze

The secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, is trying to break the deadlock by suggesting the "freeze-freeze" formula again. Under this formula, Iran would freeze enrichment in return for a freeze on any further sanctions.

Iranians make hexafluoride gas at Isfahan (file pic, 2005)
Iran has already acquired the expertise to enrich uranium

Mr ElBaradei is arguing that Iran now has the expertise to enrich anyway so it would not lose anything by a suspension.

He said on 15 June: "With the new overture coming from Washington, why can't we go for a freeze-for-freeze? Why is there a rush now for Iran to build its enrichment capability in terms of industrial capacity? ...And there is also, if we are going into a negotiation, no reason to have additional sanctions applied."

The worry ahead of course is that the diplomatic and economic confrontation might develop into a military one.

This appears less likely under President Obama than it might have done under President Bush.

And there is a difference between Iran developing the capacity to build a bomb and actually doing so.

Iran's options

It is worth looking at what Iran would have to do if it did decide to go for a nuclear weapon.

Currently it is under inspection by the IAEA, which has stated that there has been no diversion of inspected materials to any secret programme.

If it wanted to develop a bomb in secret, Iran would have construct another enrichment plant as well as mastering the technology of weaponising highly-enriched uranium. Such a move would be highly risky as the discovery of any secret plant would lay it open to immediate attack.

If it wanted to build a bomb in the open, it would have to declare its intention of leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (as North Korea did). This again would signal its intentions and would also leave it open to attack.

Iran's fiercest critics, such as Israel, say that it is unacceptable for Iran even to develop the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, which is why Israel is pressing so hard on the issue.

In the meantime, the IAEA says there are other things Iran could do to restore confidence. It could agree to increased inspections under what is known as an "additional protocol" to its inspection regime.

It could also allow access to design information about the heavy water plant it is building and it could fully answer questions about possible past studies of nuclear weapon technology.

The confrontation is set to continue.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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