AFP: A major international crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions may have been averted for the time being, but the fundamental problem remains -- the Islamic regime still wants its very own nuclear fuel cycle. In a deal set to keep its nuclear ambitions away from the United Nations Security Council for the time being, the Islamic republic has yet again agreed to suspend, but not abandon, its uranium enrichment-related work. AFP

TEHRAN - A major international crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions may have been averted for the time being, but the fundamental problem remains -- the Islamic regime still wants its very own nuclear fuel cycle.

In a deal set to keep its nuclear ambitions away from the United Nations Security Council for the time being, the Islamic republic has yet again agreed to suspend, but not abandon, its uranium enrichment-related work.

Enrichment has been and remains at the heart of the stand-off at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based UN body set up to check the spread of nuclear weapons across the globe.

Iran says it only wants to enrich uranium to low levels, so as to produce fuel for a series of atomic power stations it has yet to build. And it zealously guards its "right" under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to have a peaceful nuclear programme, including the full fuel cycle.

But Britain, France and Germany -- the European trio who have been leading diplomatic efforts aimed at solving the issue -- all fear that Iran's fuel cycle drive belies an effort to acquire a dangerous "strategic option".

"The only things that stands between the fuel cycle and a nuclear bomb is intention," said one EU diplomat close to the issue.

"It's that simple: if Iran has the fuel cycle, it has the strategic option to build a bomb. We could have a peaceful programme one day, under full IAEA supervision, and then the next day the inspectors are kicked out and soon after Iran has a nuclear bomb."

Iran asserts it does not want, or even need, what it says is an "unIslamic" type of weapon -- even if it has been lumped into an "axis of evil" by the US administration, surrounded by US troops, and in a neighbourhood of nuclear-armed states.

But sceptics point to nearly two decades of concealment from the IAEA, and even if IAEA inspectors have still found no "smoking gun" to back up allegations from the United States, they have found plenty of reasons to remain suspicious -- suspect sites having been razed and "sterilised", and black-market shopping for "dual use" technology.

Iran also agreed to suspend enrichment over a year ago -- only to seek loopholes in that agreement and press on with enrichment-related work.

Furthermore, even after agreeing to the new suspension, Iran has again drawn allegations of being in "bad faith" -- by asking for 20 centrifuges be exempted from the freeze for "research" purposes.

Iran backed down on that request late Sunday.

So once the current IAEA meeting is out of the way and the new suspension deal with the EU-three is in force, a fresh round of difficult negotiations will be underway with the stated objective of striking a long-term deal.

"With the board of governors (of the IAEA) out of the way, we will have passed a very difficult stage. That said, the way things went at Vienna were not very encouraging -- a deal was struck, then placed in doubt at the last minute," said another Tehran-based diplomat.

In return for the suspension, the EU is offering Iran a package of incentives -- due to be hammered out in more detail when negotiations begin in mid-December -- on trade, security and technology.

This is to include supporting Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), an eventual Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, adressing Iran's regional security concerns and sharing peaceful nuclear technology.

But in tandem -- and this is the hard part -- the EU also wants "objective guarantees" that Iran is not, and will not seek to divert its programme to make weapons.

"We have no concrete idea what these objective guarantees can be. Ideally we would like Iran to give up the fuel cycle, because this is the best guarantee, but I don't think we can," said another EU diplomat close to the dossier.

"So we can imagine various mechanisms controlling the fuel cycle, but it will take some serious thinking if we are to arrive at a point where Iran has the fuel cycle and the rest of the world has guarantees."

For its part, Iranian officials say they will give the negotiations a few months before it evaluates its commitment to the freeze -- meaning it could be back to Vienna, or even New York, in the springtime.

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