The United States said Monday it would oppose any compromise on the Iranian nuclear program that would allow Tehran to have even a small uranium enrichment capability. The idea of allowing Iran a small-scale research program has surfaced at the Vienna meeting of the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA.
The Bush administration is serving notice it will not be party to any compromise giving Iran a continuing capability to enrich uranium. And it is making clear it expects a referral of the matter to the U.N. Security Council barring a sudden policy reversal by Tehran on its nuclear program.
Talk of such a compromise surfaced Monday in Vienna as the IAEA convened to hear a report on the Iranian nuclear program from agency director-general Mohamed ElBaradei, before the matter is sent to the Security Council under a February 4 IAEA decision.
The IAEA chief said a deal to defuse the standoff over the Iranian program was still possible, and diplomats in Vienna were quoted as saying Iran might accept a long-term freeze on industrial scale enrichment, if it was allowed to carry-on small-scale enrichment for research under IAEA scrutiny.
However the Bush administration, which maintains that Iran's nominally peaceful nuclear program conceals a weapons project, says Iran cannot be trusted because of nearly two decades of nuclear deception.
State Department Acting Spokesman Thomas Casey said allowing Iran to pursue enrichment on any scale would allow it to perfect techniques needed to build weapons, and that the idea is unacceptable to the United States and broader world community:
"You can't be just a little pregnant," said Thomas Casey. "You can't have the [Iranian] regime pursing enrichment on any scale, because pursuing enrichment on any scale allows them to master the technology, complete the fuel-cycle, and that technology can easily be applied to a clandestine program for making nuclear weapons."
Speaking at Washington's Heritage Foundation, the State Department's third-ranking official, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, said the message of today to Iran is that it has gone too far and crossed the red line laid down by the international community.
Burns said unless Iran does a dramatic about-face and suspends all nuclear activities that are of international concern, the 35-nation IAEA board will confirm its judgment of a month ago, and the matter will go to the Security Council.
The comments came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to begin a two-day set of talks late Monday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, whose government has pursued nuclear negotiations with Tehran.
Moscow, in an initiative backed by Washington, has proposed to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil to allow Tehran to continue what it says is a peaceful civilian nuclear program.
Iran has on several occasions publicly expressed interest in the Russian proposal. But U.S. officials say Tehran officials continue to hold out for some continuing enrichment capability, which contravenes the Russian plan and is unacceptable.
The United States has long supported referral to the Security Council. But has been non-committal on what punitive measures might be sought there against Iran, suggesting the intensified focus on the issue at the U.N. itself might prompt Iran to reconsider its stand.