By Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran sees little point in staying in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a senior official said on Monday, a day after Iran announced plans to build 10 more nuclear sites in a swipe at growing pressure to rein in atomic activity.
Russia said it was seriously concerned by the proposal for a huge expansion of Iran’s atomic program. Washington has condemned the plans as a “serious violation” of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend uranium enrichment.
The comments by Ali Larijani, the influential conservative speaker of parliament, underlined deteriorating relations between Iran and world powers, after a brief diplomatic rapprochement two months ago, seeking a peaceful solution to a long-running standoff over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Last week, the 35-nation governing board of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), rebuked Iran for building an enrichment plant in secret, triggering Tehran’s defiant announcement to erect 10 more such sites.
“I believe that their moves are harming the NPT the most … Now whether you are a member of the NPT or pull out of it has no difference,” Larijani told a news conference, alluding to the global pact banning development of nuclear weapons.
“This decision (new enrichment sites) was the result of the recent (IAEA) resolution, and Iran’s government sent a strong message,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, quoted by state broadcaster IRIB.
Top Iranian officials have repeatedly said Iran has no intention of leaving the NPT, under which its nuclear sites are subject to IAEA inspections, or use enrichment to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, which it says violate the tenets of Islam.
Analysts also believe Iran would think twice before quitting the NPT since such a move would betray nuclear weapons ambitions and could provoke pre-emptive attack by Israel and possibly the United States.
SUSPICIONS ABOUT MAJOR ENRICHMENT EXPANSION
It could take sanctions-bound Iran, which has problems obtaining materials and components abroad, many years to equip and operate 10 new plants, strategic analysts say.
Iran dismissed skepticism voiced by some Western analysts about its wherewithal to execute the plan. “They will see in the future that what we have said is no bluff,” First Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi told Fars news agency.
If Iran indeed expands enrichment so much, suspicions of an underlying agenda to develop nuclear weapons will rise since Iran lacks the fuel-fabrication technology that is required to turn low-enriched uranium (LEU) into material for civilian nuclear power plants — but not needed to refine LEU to the high purity needed for bombs. Further, Iran is not building any nuclear power plants that could use the LEU it is producing.
Salehi said Tehran would not violate its international commitments, an allusion to basic IAEA nuclear safeguards.
But a hardline newspaper editor, appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asked in an editorial whether it was time for Tehran to withdraw from the NPT.
“After seven years of hasty behavior by the (IAEA) and (six world powers involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the row), isn’t it time for Iran to pull out of the NPT?” wrote managing editor Hossein Shariatmadari of Kayhan newspaper. “This is a serious question and needs a logical answer.”
The IAEA board angered Iran when it censured it for secretly building a second uranium enrichment plant in a mountain bunker near the holy city of Qom, in addition to one in Natanz.
The United States condemned Iran’s announcement and analysts said it would accelerate calls for more U.N. sanctions against Iran over atomic activities that Washington suspects is aimed at building a nuclear bomb, something Tehran strongly denies.
Russia, which has so far refused to publicly support U.S. suggestions broader economic sanctions may be needed against Iran, said it was “seriously concerned by the latest statements of the Iranian leadership.”
France said Iran should be given a “last chance” in talks over its atomic program, but said it must heed the warnings of the U.N. watchdog. “The fact that Iran persists in ignoring the demands of a big independent agency like the IAEA, that’s very dangerous,” Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Iran’s announcement “clearly goes in the wrong direction.
“Iran is urged to cooperate with the IAEA without ifs and buts … It is clear that if Iran rejects the outstretched hand of the international community, it must expect further sanctions,” he added.
Under an IAEA-drafted deal arising from Iranian talks with six world powers in October, Iran would receive nuclear fuel for a medical research reactor if it parts with most of its LEU.
Iran has backed away from the draft pact, which big powers hoped would minimize Tehran’s nuclear weaponisation potential, and Iranian media said the government would at a meeting on Wednesday study the issue of making the fuel itself.
Larijani said there was still room for diplomacy.
“It would be useful for them also to use this diplomatic opportunity to let Iran work in the framework of the IAEA and international supervision to assure them that Iran’s activities are peaceful,” he said. “Of course they are free to choose another method and Iran will act accordingly.”