Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

IRAN: Nuclear Crisis – No Progress at Shanghai

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Apr 17 2008 (IPS) - Tehran’s defiant position on its nuclear programme has precluded any significant progress at talks among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany on how to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

The talks hosted by China in the financial hub of Shanghai on Wednesday trailed an announcement by Iranian President Ahmadinejad that his country had tested a new advanced centrifuge and started to install 6,000 new centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant.

“Today a new machine was put to test,” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised speech on the occasion of Iran’s National Day of Nuclear Technology on Tuesday. “It is smaller but its capacity is five times greater than the current machines,” he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA agency.

A day earlier the Iranian president threw another gauntlet by declaring that other nations should be allowed to benefit from his country’s development of nuclear technology within the framework of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations.

Monopolising powers “are endeavouring to prevent nations from gaining access to the peaceful nuclear energy,” he said at a meeting with the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo. But the Islamic Republic of Iran will resist the pressure and intends “to restore the right of acquiring nuclear technology for peaceful purposes to all nations,” he added.

Tehran has insisted all along that its nuclear work is entirely peaceful and geared towards producing energy. The IAEA and many countries though are sceptical. The Iranian government has defied U.N. calls to freeze the process. IAEA believes that Tehran has progressed some way towards being self-sufficient in nuclear fuel, which can be used to make either electricity or nuclear weapons.

The Shanghai meeting was expected to discuss ways to make a package of incentives to persuade the country to curtail its pursuit of nuclear technology along with further sanctions to punish Tehran for refusing to halt its nuclear work.

The Chinese foreign ministry said an “important consensus” had been reached on the way forward to restart negotiations with Iran but did not offer any details. U.S. State Department spokesman Steve McCormack had said earlier that the focus of the talks would be on enhancing the incentives rather than on purely punitive measures against Tehran.

Since December 2006, the U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt sensitive nuclear activities, including curbs on dual-use nuclear items, asset freezes, travel restrictions, cargo inspections on aircraft and vessels and others.

However Tehran’s reply to these punitive actions has been to demand compensation for the damage caused by the sanctions as a precondition for any further negotiations. Iranian politicians also say they would negotiate only with the IAEA.

China, which played host to Iranian nuclear talks for the first time, is walking a fine line as it tries to push nuclear non-proliferation higher on its agenda but fears alienating a major energy supplier. Iran is China’s third largest oil provider after Saudi Arabia and Angola.

The Shanghai talks were held not long after Iran submitted a formal request for membership in the security pact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The Euro-Asian alliance, conceived as a counterweight to NATO, currently includes China, Russia and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan have observer status.

Both China and Russia have opposed harsh U.N. Security Council’s sanctions against Tehran but they are wary of admitting Iran as a full member of the SCO.

“Among all SCO observers Iran is the only country that is explicitly hostile towards the United States,” says Hua Limin, a former Chinese diplomat to Tehran. “If Iran is admitted as a full member then there is a possibility that the United States brands the SCO as anti-American organisation.”

Washington has voiced concerns already. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said recently that if the SCO moves in the direction of becoming a Warsaw Pact, the U.S. would take action.

But China is clear that Tehran’s application for SCO membership at this particular time of intensified discord with the U.S. is meant to raise its “bargaining chips”, said Hua Limin. “Neither China nor Russia want to make any steps that would antagonise their relations with the U.S.,” he adds.

Chinese analysts warn that as the pursuit of strategic containment of Iran that U.S. politicians have followed in the past three decades is increasingly proving futile, the risk of military conflict is growing.

“The prospect of a US military strike against Iran is increasing, partly caused by the serious misjudgement of each other’s strategies,” argued GaoZugui, a researcher on international affairs in the journal Peace And Development.

“Even if Washington is to fully pursue the containment policy, it may still resort to a military strike to debilitate Tehran’s military power,” he wrote.

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