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Iran heads for showdown in nuclear row

AFP | August 24 2006

Iran appeared headed for a showdown at the UN Security Council next week over its nuclear programme, facing the threat of sanctions after failing to freeze key fuel cycle work.

Western nations reacted coolly to Iran's response to a international offer of incentives in return for a halt to uranium enrichment, with the United States warning it fell short of UN demands and France insisting Tehran immediately suspend nuclear activities.

However, fellow permanent Security Council members China and Russia have appealed for a peaceful solution to the long-running standoff.

The Security Council adopted a resolution last month giving Iran until August 31 to freeze its uranium enrichment programme or face sanctions.

The US State Department said Washington was still consulting with fellow Security Council members after Tehran said it was ready for talks but declined to announce a moratorium on enrichment.

"We acknowledge that Iran considers its response as a serious offer, and we will review it," spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said.

"The response, however, falls short of the conditions set by the Security Council, which require the full and verifiable suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities," he said.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said Tuesday Tehran was ready for "serious talks" but no details were made public of its response to a package of trade, technology and security incentives offered by the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany.

The United States and other powers suspect the nuclear programme is a smokescreen for an attempt to produce a bomb. Enrichment can make fuel for nuclear power stations or be extended to create the core of atomic weapons.

However, Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer, insists it is purely for peaceful power generation and that it has the right to the technology as a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said Tehran was "waiting for a logical and just reaction from the major powers (but) we are ready to face any situation.

"If there is no international (negotiating) partner or a climate favourable to fair negotiations, we will react accordingly."

Elham declined to say whether Iran might accept a short-term suspension. "Nothing has changed. We will continue our research activities, but we want understanding and dialogue."

The Islamic republic has also been flexing its military might during nationwide war games it says are aimed at demonstrating it can respond to "any threat."

France insisted future talks would depend on a freeze.

"Our hand is still extended. The Iranians know the rules of the game: first a suspension of sensitive nuclear activities," Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said.

Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, said it would continue to press for a political solution and wanted to keep the UN nuclear watchdog -- not the Security Council -- at the centre of the process.

China's special envoy to the Middle East, Sun Bigan, said Beijing sought a "peaceful settlement rather than resorting to force or threatening sanctions".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the issue by telephone Wednesday while Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was expected to travel to Tehran next week.

As the Security Council deadline neared, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are in the final stages of preparing a report on Iran's uranium enrichment work.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei is to report back to the Security Council on Iran's compliance and if it is deemed to have failed, the Council will consider adopting "appropriate measures" under Article 41 of Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which sets out enforcement powers.

But an Iranian news agency reported that Iran would soon announce a breakthrough which would "highlight its mastery of different areas in nuclear science and reinforce Iran's position as a nuclear country".

In Washington, a congressional committee warned of "significant" gaps in US intelligence on Iran, a scenario it said precluded confident assessments on Tehran's suspected weapons of mass destruction programmes.

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