By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - Iran is using negotiations with the European Union's "big three" on suspending sensitive nuclear activities to buy the time it needs to get ready to make atomic weapons, an Iranian exile and intelligence officials said.
With intelligence sources saying Iran could be months away from nuclear weapons cabability, the United States wants Iran reported to the U.N. Security Council immediately, charging Tehran uses its civilian atomic energy programme as a front to develop the bomb. Tehran vehemently denies the charge.
France, Britain and Germany want to avoid isolating Iran and have taken a go-slow approach, negotiating with Iran to suspend uranium enrichment activities.
"Iran continues to use existing differences between the U.S. and Europe to their advantage and tries to drag out talks with the EU to buy time," Alireza Jafarzadeh, an Iranian exile who has reported accurately on Iran's nuclear programme in the past, told Reuters.
"They feel they have bought at least 10 months," Jafarzadeh said. He said he was citing sources in Iran familiar with the results of a recent high-level meeting on Iran's nuclear programme attended by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Jafarzadeh said officials at the meeting also decided to allocate an additional $2 billion from Iran's central bank reserves to supplement some $14 billion already spent on what he called Iran's "secret nuclear weapons programme".
The EU trio has expressed disappointment at Iran's failure to keep promises it made in October to suspend all activities related to the enrichment of uranium, a process of purifying it for use as fuel for atomic power plants or in weapons. But the three remain committed to a process of engagement with Tehran.
However an intelligence official said a failure to act now as Washington would like, could be decisive for the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons cabability.
"The Europeans express helplessness, despair and lack of strategy, which is exactly what (the Iranians) want to hear," a senior non-U.S. intelligence official said.
"This is their golden opportunity, between now and the coming of a new (U.S.) administration."
"PLAYING FOR TIME"
The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been investigating Iran's nuclear programme ever since Jafarzadeh announced in August 2002 on behalf of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group, that Iran was hiding several massive nuclear sites from the IAEA.
Although the EU trio are reaching the point where they too might support a referral of Iran's nuclear programme to the Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions, diplomats in Vienna say they will give Iran one more chance to end its enrichment activities before the November IAEA meeting.
On Tuesday, diplomats said Iran had agreed with the Europeans in principle to renew its suspension of centrifuge production, assembly and testing. But U.S. and other officials dismissed this as a ploy to escape a Security Council referral.
"Iran is playing for time," a Western diplomat told Reuters.
The IAEA Board of Governors meets next week to discuss Iran's nuclear programme, parts of which it hid from the U.N. nuclear watchdog for nearly two decades. Vienna diplomats say the EU three oppose a U.N. Security Council report next week.
Diplomats and intelligence officials say this may give Iran just enough time to reach the point where it has all the technology and expertise it needs to develop an atom bomb at a time of its choosing.
"It is a matter of several months, up to a year, most probably less than a year (for nuclear capability)," the intelligence official said. "By that time we think they will have enough feed material for the centrifuges so they won't be dependent on foreign input."
Iran recently announced it would convert 37 tonnes of raw "yellowcake" uranium into uranium hexafluoride, the feed material for centrifuges. Experts say this is enough for a bomb.
The official said the IAEA was making a mistake by being so cautious about what the agency has called a lack of any evidence proving Tehran has a covert military atomic programme.
"If the IAEA would wait forever to see a smoking gun ... it will be too late," the official said.