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Iran is debating, not stalling, on N-offer

June 23, 2006

TEHRAN: Iran’s reluctance to respond swiftly to proposals aimed at ending a nuclear standoff is less a time-wasting tactic and more a sign of a real debate among decision-makers on how to reply, analysts and diplomats say.

Some Western critics have accused Iran of delaying to buy time to master uranium enrichment, a process the West says Iran is using to build atomic bombs despite Tehran’s denials.

But the analysts say the Iranian leadership appears tempted by the offer, particularly by US-backed incentives that Iran views as acknowledging the role in regional security it has long sought. This is encouraging serious consideration, they say.

“No doubt they are serious about (the package), and they are debating about it. So there are differences of opinion about exactly what to do,” said analyst Nasser Hadian, who describes himself as a friend of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran has so far given no indication it will give up enrichment, the main demand of the June 6 package which offers incentives if Tehran agrees.

Officials have hinted Iran might only be willing to negotiate over the scale of enrichment Tehran is seeking, a position that could yet doom the offer made by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

But private comments by Iranian officials hint at a broad debate. They say consultations even include members of a former nuclear negotiating team, who were criticised by the dominant conservative camp for striking an earlier deal with European states to suspend enrichment. That pact collapsed last year.

Hadian said opinions ranged from an “unconditional no” to what he described as the “very radical position” proposing that Iran keeps spinning its centrifuges used to enrich uranium but without injecting the UF6 gas to make the enriched fuel.

He said another view suggested Iran keeps running its single cascade of 164 centrifuges — a number seen as too small to pose a proliferation threat — but commit it will not start more and will stop plans for industrial-scale enrichment.

“Our impression is there is a serious debate,” said a senior Western diplomat in Tehran. But he said it was far from clear how the six powers would react to any counter offer that fell short of full suspension.

Analysts say Iran may feel it can press for concessions, partly because it believes the United States is too bogged down in Iraq to handle a crisis with Iran.

But they said Iran is also aware it cannot afford to snub the offer completely particularly when it has the backing of Russia and China, two veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council which have opposed sanctions.

“They are aware that now the ball is in their court and if they offer a flat ‘no’ to such an overture, then they may turn out to be the losers,” said one Iranian political analyst, whose position does not allow him to speak publicly.

Iranian officials have made some positive comments about the package, a marked difference from the outright rejection of a similar European offer last year. That offer did not have the explicit support of Washington.

Even the president, who has vowed no compromise with the West and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, has said Iran is considering it. But Iran’s multi-faceted power structure makes decision-making a long process.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say. He has not said if Iran would accept or reject the offer, but said Iran would not yield to pressure.

Analysts say deliberations are more tortuous because the government considers its nuclear achievements, including enriching uranium, a source of national pride and has vowed to the public not to give it up.

“(Ahmadinejad) still has more radical rhetoric than Larijani, for example, which I think indicates there is still some sort of difference within the establishment,” said analyst Mahmoud Alinejad.

Chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said of the latest proposals that the issue of enrichment needed “clarification” but also said positive elements included a proposal for Iran to join a regional security dialogue.

“These are the kind of security issues which are important for Iranians,” said Hadian, adding that Tehran saw this as US acknowledgement of its role as a regional power.

Western diplomats say the proposal is vaguely worded because a dialogue would need to involve Arab neighbours who have long been suspicious of Iran.

Hadian said offers such as a state-of-the-art nuclear power plant were less important to the world’s No. 4 oil exporter, which says its atomic programme is to make electricity.—Reuters