Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Iran Leader: Nuclear Path 'Irreversible'

Yahoo News:

By ALI AKBAR DAREINI, Associated Press Writer

Tue Mar 14, 8:26 PM ET

Iran's supreme leader issued a tough line on his country's suspect nuclear program Tuesday, saying it is "irreversible" and any retreat would endanger the Islamic republic's independence. The confrontational tone from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, set Iran on a collision course with the West as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council debated how to deal with fears Tehran is seeking to develop atomic weapons.

After meeting Tuesday at the United Nations, the Security Council powers remained divided over how strong a statement to make on Iran's nuclear program. A British-French draft demands that Iran halt all uranium enrichment, which can be used to make nuclear arms, and calls for a report within weeks on Iran's progress toward answering questions about its nuclear program.

Russia and China, which have strong economic ties with Tehran, say the draft does not leave enough room for diplomacy and focuses too much on possible action by the council, which could impose sanctions.

The White House said the calls by Moscow and Beijing for a negotiated end to the crisis do not mean the end of U.S. hopes for a strong statement from the 15-nation council.

"That's premature to get into that kind of discussion," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "The discussions are ongoing."

McClellan said Iran wants to divert attention from the real issue, but that "all nations understand the importance of preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon. ... This is about the regime's behavior."

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the Bush administration wants to move "as quickly as we can," although he added that it wants to maintain the unity of the five permanent council members that wield veto power.

"Every day that goes by is a day that permits the Iranians to get closer to a nuclear weapons capability," Bolton said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also called for a "robust and determined" stance from the United Nations and said his country would consider pushing for a weapons embargo against Iran if efforts to force it to clear up questions about its nuclear intentions fail.

Khamenei's comments further dimmed already fading hopes for a compromise proposal by Moscow that called for uranium enrichment to take place entirely on Russian soil and was seen as the last chance for averting a standoff at Security Council over Iran.

Tehran has been giving conflicting signals on the proposal, announcing over the weekend that it was no longer being considered, then saying talks with Russia were still under way.

Khamenei intervened Tuesday to lay down the one of his strongest statements on the nuclear issue, apparently aimed at ending any compromising tone from moderates within the Iranian government.

He told Iranian diplomats who were called home for consultations that there would be no backing down.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran considers retreat over the nuclear issue ... as breaking the country's independence which will impose huge costs on the Iranian nation," Khamenei said, according to state television.

"This path is irreversible and the foreign policy establishment has to bravely defend Iran's rights," he told the diplomats.

In a nationally televised speech, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also vowed to resist pressure from the Security Council, saying "no power" can take nuclear technology from Iran.

"They should know that through propaganda, political pressures and games they play nowadays ... (they) can't prevent the Iranian nation from pursuing its path," he said, referring to the West.

Russian negotiators held talks with an Iranian delegations Tuesday in Moscow, urging a diplomatic solution to the standoff. The Iranians left the Russian capital after the talks, with no announcement of any progress. Moscow has appeared increasingly frustrated with Iran, a longtime ally that Russia is helping to build its first nuclear reactor.

In another sign Tehran was preparing for the worst, officials told editors of Iran's newspapers in recent meetings that editorials criticizing the government's nuclear policies won't be tolerated, according to an internal newsletter of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist party.

The nuclear program is a source of national pride in Iran, and even pro-reform figures have supported its pursuit.

But criticism has been growing among reformists of Ahmadinejad's foreign policy performance. The Islamic Iran Participation Front said in its newsletter this week that Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to be "wiped off the map" last year rang alarm bells in Western capitals and unnecessarily provoked the West against Iran.

The United States and some in Europe accuse Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying its program aims only to use nuclear reactors to generate electricity. It insists on its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to fully develop peaceful nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment.

The United States and its European allies want Iran to permanently abandon uranium enrichment, because the process can produce not only fuel for a reactor but also the material for a nuclear warhead.


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