Top Iranian Officials Say Nuclear Program Won't End

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki

hide captionIran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki addresses reporters in Tehran in September 2006.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani

hide captionIran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani dismissed the significance of economic sanctions.

Qassem Zein/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's leadership appears more united than ever about its nuclear program and how to deal with the challenges to it.

In interviews with NPR this week, both Iran's foreign minister and its chief nuclear negotiator insisted that Iran would never stop enriching uranium.

Diplomats from Europe and other nations have been trying to find some formula to defuse the growing crisis over Iran's nuclear program, whereby Iran would suspend uranium enrichment for a time and subsequent negotiations would try to end the potential confrontation.

But the Iranian government has decided it will not agree to such an arrangement even if it means harsher sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that time for the suspension of uranium enrichment has passed.

Mottaki dismissed the two rounds of sanctions imposed on Iran in the past year and said tougher sanctions won't work.

"In today's world, the instrument of sanctions is no longer effective," he said.

Right now, Iran is involved in talks on this issue with the European Union. The EU has put a proposal on the table whereby Iran would stop installing additional gas centrifuges — which make enriched uranium — at its facility at Natanz as a step toward holding substantive negotiations.

A senior Iranian official with intimate knowledge of the diplomacy said Iran will not agree to this.

This almost certainly will lead to more pressure from the Bush administration to apply tougher sanctions on Iran.

Mottaki said this would not persuade Iran to back down.

"It will be the start of a confrontation," he said.

Just what kind of confrontation, Mottaki would not say. But the senior Iranian official observed that such an outcome would lead Iran to take what he called "illegal steps." By "illegal" the official hinted Iran then might opt to stop cooperation altogether with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which continues to carry out regular inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, or to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In its ongoing talks with Europe, Iran has offered alternative proposals. The Iranian government wants to focus now on guarantees that its nuclear program will never be used for military purposes.

But all of Tehran's proposals involve continuing to enrich uranium inside Iran.

One proposal focuses on the idea of an international consortium controlling Iran's nuclear facilities. Chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said he recently proposed that to Javier Solana, who represents the European Union.

"I said we could put all our nuclear activities under a consortium that would be under the supervision of a number of international countries ... that you can have participation in it as well as the supervision. ... And he accepted. He liked this idea. But, again, this idea also did not receive much attention," said Larijani.

Larijani, too, dismissed the significance of economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

In the past year, though, the U.S. Treasury Department has imposed financial sanctions of its own on two Iranian banks that are said to be connected to the nuclear program and to Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Those sanctions are believed to be eroding Iran's access to the global financial system.

Larijani insisted that Iran could live with those sanctions as well and would never give up its right to nuclear technology.

"I do not say it is not causing its problem," Larijani said. "But if the U.S. Treasury is thinking that by such approaches (it is turning) a blind eye to this right of ours, that is wrong."

As for the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities — an option widely discussed in the United States — Iran's leaders seem supremely confident that with its troubles in Iraq and with President Bush weakened politically by last year's election, the United States is unable to resort to military action.

Mottaki said he believes the United States is not in a position to impose a new war on the American taxpayer. But he acknowledged that there are those who do favor military action against Iran.

"This does not mean that there are absolutely no persons in the US. administration or in other places that do not continue to beat the drums of war," Mottaki said.

Still, Iran appears to have decided to be a bit more open about its nuclear activities. In the past two weeks, it has agreed to address some of the unanswered questions that have troubled the International Atomic Energy Agency about those activities, and next week it will permit inspectors from the IAEA to visit Arak, where Iran is building a research reactor that could produce plutonium. Iran cut off the agency's access to the site several months ago.

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