x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tehran defiant ahead of talks with superpowers

Analysts say the exposure of a nuclear plant weakens the republic's stance as it goes into talks in Geneva.

Iran remained defiant yesterday in the wake of revelations that it has been building a clandestine uranium enrichment plant, with a senior official boasting that the facility would soon be operational and make Tehran's "enemies blind". A banner front-page headline in a government-run newspaper also trumpeted: "A new victorious step taken in the nuclear domain."

The fresh charges of nuclear duplicity against Iran will weaken Tehran's hands as it goes into landmark nuclear talks in Geneva on Thursday with diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, analysts said. The western powers now have more ammunition to press Russia and China to back new sanctions against Iran if it refuses to give ground on its nuclear programme. The revelations about the new plant also mean that it is a "pretty safe assumption" that "the Iranians are more worried now by the extent of penetration by foreign intelligence agencies", said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst based in Israel and co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran. So Iran would "have to be second-guessing every decision they make [in nuclear negotiations] by asking 'do the opposition know about this or not?'".

The previously undeclared new uranium enrichment facility has been known to US, British and French intelligence agencies for more than two years. Like many other analysts, however, Mr Javedanfar believes the site's disclosure on Friday is unlikely to force any early concessions from the Islamic Republic. "I think for now Iran is not going to give any ground ? but this doesn't mean there won't be progress in the future," he said. "If the situation seriously starts getting out of hand in a short amount of time and very tough sanctions are imposed, then I think [Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] would be open to making compromises."

There was no sign of Iran backing down yesterday. Mohammad Mohammadi-Golpayegani, who heads Ayatollah Khamenei's office, said: "This new plant, God willing, will soon become operational and will make the enemies blind." He added that the construction of the facility was a sign that Iran was at "the summit of power". Barack Obama, the US president, said yesterday that the discovery of the new enrichment facility showed a "disturbing pattern" of evasion by Tehran, which added urgency to this week's talks. He demanded on Friday that Iran come clean on its nuclear programme or risk "sanctions that bite".

Western leaders have warned that punitive new measures could be imposed by December if Iran refuses to budge on its nuclear programme. Tehran acknowledged the existence of the uranium enrichment facility ? in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom ? for the first time on Monday in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog. Iran's disclosure was apparently an attempt to steal the thunder of the US, Britain and France, whose leaders jointly blew the whistle on it on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh on Friday.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, insisted the new plant had not violated any international requirements and said Mr Obama would regret accusing Iran of hiding it. He accused western powers of exploiting the issue to disrupt Thursday's Geneva talks. The Iranian president justified Iran's concealment of the plant by arguing there were no international requirements to declare any nuclear facility until 180 days before fissile material was introduced into it.

Seeking to deflect international uproar over the plant - which he said would not be operational for 18 months ? Mr Ahmadinejad repeated his country's position that Iran was not interested in developing nuclear weapons, describing them as "against humanity". But he sidestepped a question at a press conference in New York on Friday night about whether Iran had sufficient uranium to build a bomb. Iran already has a uranium enrichment plant near the central city of Natanz.

The head of Iran's nuclear agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Tehran would arrange a date with the IAEA to inspect the new site and that it would operate under the UN watchdog's rules. He suggested that Tehran had not previously disclosed the facility's existence because of the possibility of Israeli or US military action against Iran's nuclear programme. "Considering the threats [to the existing nuclear sites], our organisation decided to do what is necessary to preserve and continue our nuclear activities," Mr Salehi said. "So we decided to build new installations which will guarantee the continuation of our nuclear activities ? which will never stop at any cost."

Attempting to give a positive to Iran's pre-emptive disclosure of the site, he claimed that Tehran had assumed its purported transparency would be welcomed. "We are completely stunned and we are anticipating that the western countries would welcome this measure by Iran," Mr Salehi said. Israel yesterday said the disclosure of a second nuclear enrichment facility in Iran proved the country was seeking nuclear weapons and demanded an "unequivocal" response from the West in Geneva. Mr Obama said, "When we meet them [Iran] on October 1, they are going to have to come clean and they are going to have to make a choice."

However, the six world powers can expect few concrete answers from Iran on Thursday, diplomats said. "Rule out a concessional session. If Iran wants to concede anything, it would only be in the context of a bargain," said a European senior former envoy to Iran. "It will be an agenda conversation where each side ? will work out how they're going to proceed." The most that can be expected from Thursday's meeting is that the enrichment facility revelations will put Iran under pressure to be more forthcoming in agreeing the principles and agenda for future talks, he said. "It's not a crossword puzzle where you hope to complete it in a day." But the former envoy was not hopeful of an eventual breakthrough: "It's a long shot."

Iran did little to dispel such pessimism. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy commission, warned the West against taking measures which he suggested could affect Tehran's existing co-operation with the IAEA. Iran's construction of a new enrichment plant should not be allowed to overshadow the October talks, "unless these countries are after some pretext to ruin the negotiations and to make them fruitless", he said.

The regime in Tehran, itself, however, is in no position to make the talks fruitful, some analysts argue. "As long as Ahmadinejad remains president and Khamenei remains leader, Iran is not going to be willing or capable of making any meaningful compromises," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington. But the door for dialogue should remain open, he added in a press note released by the endowment last week: "Engagement is not an end in itself, but rather a means that seeks, among other things, to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions and moderate its regional policies."

Some influential figures in Iran appear receptive. A reformist daily yesterday quoted Mohsen Rezai, a defeated presidential candidate and former commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, calling for a joint US-Iran initiative to solve the crisis as "the Europeans are determined to do something against Iran by December". @Email:mtheodoulou@thenational.ae