Another step towards a showdown with America
The Independent UK
By Rupert Cornwell in Washington
Iran's announcement yesterday that it has started enriching uranium on an industrial scale further raises the stakes in its confrontation with the US and the UN Security Council, and brings it closer to a possible military showdown with Washington.
In an initial reaction, the White House said it was "very concerned" at the latest development, and accused Tehran of defying the international community, instead of complying with UN demands to suspend enrichment - which the US and its allies suspect is part of a secret programme to develop a nuclear weapon.
Making matters worse is Iran's decision to cut back its already limited co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog. This was "unacceptable", Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said during a visit yesterday by President George Bush to Arizona.
At the State Department too, the news was greeted as another sign Iran has decided to press ahead with enrichment, come what may. The transition to industrial-scale enrichment amounted to "a missed opportunity", and sent "another signal that Tehran is defying the international community", said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
Even before this latest challenge, relations between Washington and Tehran were more fraught than usual. The US accuses unspecified elements in Iran of providing sophisticated explosive devices to insurgents in Iraq for use against US troops. For the past three months, moreover, it has been holding five Iranians seized in the northern city of Arbil, despite Iranian demands for their release.
The Bush administration's position remains that all options - including the use of force - remain on the table. Though Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defence, and other top officials deny there is a specific plan for military action, the Pentagon has long had contingency plans drawn up for air strikes against Iranian nuclear sites. Despite the strains imposed on the US military by the Iraq war, rumours persist that Mr Bush will order an attack within the next few weeks.
Ms Rice says she is willing to hold talks with her Iranian counterpart at a foreign ministers' level meeting of regional countries, aimed at stabilising the situation in Iraq, and tentatively scheduled for next month. But, says the White House, any such contacts will be limited to Iraq.
As matters stand, Iran has until the end of next month to comply with the latest UN demand for a suspension of enrichment activities, or face "further appropriate measures". That deadline was part of the Security Council resolution on 24 March curbing aid to Tehran, blocking all Iranian arms exports and freezing the foreign assets of officials and institutions involved in Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
But within minutes of its passage, Iranian officials were denouncing the measures as "illegal". As if to mock the Security Council - and divide its veto-wielding members - Tehran separately announced yesterday that a senior official had just made a visit to Russia without the slightest problem, despite a theoretical UN ban on such journeys.
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