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'This is our winning card'

Iranian hardliners welcome the weekend's revelations about Iran's second uranium enrichment plant.

TEHRAN // While Iranian reformists have so far not reacted publicly to the news of Iran's second uranium enrichment plant, hardliners and conservatives say the revelation demonstrates Iran's ability to take the West by surprise, and called the existence of the new facility "a winning card" that Iran can use to increase its bargaining power during talks in Geneva that are scheduled for October 1. The talks are with the so-called P5-plus-one, referring to the five permanent UN Security Council members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - plus Germany.

"Against the wishes of the western powers, Iran will sit at talks in Switzerland with a winning card and initiative [to] discuss its proposed package," an editorial said yesterday in the government mouthpiece, Iran newspaper, referring to the establishment of the new nuclear facility 100km south of Tehran near the holy city of Qom. The editorial said the Islamic republic has the right to expand its peaceful nuclear activities at any time and that the country would be accountable only to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It demanded that "Iran's interlocutors in the West and East of the world carefully take note of that".

In an interview with state-run television yesterday, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, stressed that the Qom enrichment plant will not be different from the one already in use in Natanz except that it will be more immune to military attacks because of the careful selection of its location. He also said Iran did not intend to produce all the enriched uranium it needs to operate its nuclear plants, most likely signalling that Iran is prepared to buy nuclear fuel as well as produce it. Dismissing the existence of nuclear plants in other parts of the country, Mr Salehi said Iran is capable of producing nuclear fuel even if world powers try to limit its ability to do so.

A report yesterday in the hardline, semi-official Kayhan newspaper, which supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed that by voluntarily announcing the existence of its new enrichment facility Iran has foiled threats of a military strike by the West because "the multiplicity of facilities is a very effective defensive action" and that the announcement was a "shock to the western countries' diplomatic apparatus and media".

The analysis reasoned that by surprising the West, Iran had succeeded in excluding the issue of suspension of uranium enrichment from the agenda of the upcoming Geneva talks and said " western countries now realise that they [can] only supervise enrichment by Iran and that wishing to suspend [Iran's enrichment programme altogether] is meaningless". Other conservative commentators, however, criticised the government of Mr Ahmadinejad for the "[overly] hasty announcement" of the existence of the new plant.

"Authorities must explain whether the announcement of the construction of semi-industrial enrichment facilities was based on reason ? or like other reckless policies of the past five years will it pave the way for a fourth [UN] resolution [against Iran] or will [lead to the] continuation of the normalisation of Iran's case in [the] IAEA?" Ayandeh, a conservative news portal, wrote in an analysis. The site is said to be close to Mohsen Rezaie, who was conservative candidate in the June presidential election.

The analysis also said authorities behind the decision were mistaken if they thought the announcement could strengthen Iran's position in the approaching talks. Although western sources claim that they had known about the facility deep underground in the mountainous terrain near Qom since 2006, and that the disclosure was made by Iran only when it realised the existence of the facility was no longer a secret, Kayhan quoted an unnamed "informed official" as saying Iran had in 2004 informed the IAEA that "it had to do something about the threat of a military attack [on its nuclear facilities] repeatedly posed by the western countries", implying that western intelligence services had not discovered the Qom plant on their own.

Iranian officials said that under the IAEA safeguards agreement, it is only obliged to inform the UN nuclear watchdog of the existence of enrichment plants 180 days before the introduction of uranium hexafluoride gas into its centrifuges. They accuse the West of believing erroneously that Iran is required to announce the initiation of any and all new activity regarding its nuclear programme. "I categorically reject that there has been any concealment or any deception," Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, was quoted by Iran's Press TV as saying on Saturday. Mr Soltanieh said he had informed the IAEA secretary general that the new plant would become operational in about 540 days. Mr Soltaniyeh said: "Iran has been too co-operative [and informed the IAEA] well in advance."

The Iranian envoy also criticised the leaders of the United States, France and Britain for not being aware of the IAEA statute and said it was a pity they did not know that Iran was only obliged to inform the IAEA only six months before new nuclear material was introduced to the centrifuges. He added that the site does not have any nuclear material at the moment, and accused the three countries of violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for the past 40 years by operating their own nuclear weapons programmes.

Speaking on Friday the US President Barack Obama called the new Iranian nuclear facility "a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the non-proliferation regime". He also said Iran's second enrichment facility "is inconsistent with a peaceful [nuclear] programme" and demonstrated a "disturbing pattern" of evasion by Iran. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Iran of leading the world down a "dangerous" path, and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said "serial deception of many years" by Iran required tougher action by the world community.

msinaiee@thenational.ae

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