By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - Iran intends to use Monday's talks with France, Britain and Germany to ensure it has the right to go on carrying out research with equipment that could be used to develop nuclear weapons, Western diplomats said.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, will meet foreign ministers of the EU's "big three" in Brussels on Monday for talks on details of a deal that would reward Iran for taking steps to assure the world it is not developing an atom bomb.
"Iran plans to insist on its right to conduct R&D (research and development) and to agree to conduct negotiations only on how it will be inspected and not the fact of the existence of R&D," a diplomat who follows the work of the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told Reuters.
The United States accuses Iran of using its nuclear energy program as a front to develop the know-how to make weapons, a charge Iran denies. Washington has pushed the U.N. nuclear watchdog to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible economic sanctions but the agency has refused to do so.
The centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants or in atomic weapons, are a sensitive issue for the Europeans, who would like Iran to permanently abandon all work that could produce bomb-grade enriched uranium or plutonium useable in a weapon.
But Iran has made clear that it will never give this up.
"Permanent freezing (of uranium enrichment) is not an option for us," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told a weekly news conference. "What we've agreed to is temporary suspension for a short period."
Western diplomats close to the EU-Iran negotiations said that Iran's wish-list for the talks was quite extensive. In exchange for freezing its nuclear program Iran wants benefits in the areas of telecommunications, railways and financing.
The Iranians have said they want to see swift progress in the talks with the EU and an end to restrictions on the sale of sensitive technologies to Iran. The timing could be a problem, since the Iranians want the talks to last months and the Europeans expect them to last years.
DE FACTO RECOGNITION
A resolution passed by the IAEA board of governors on Nov. 29 called on Iran to freeze its nuclear program but mentioned no punitive actions if Tehran resumed work on nuclear fuel. It describes the freeze as "voluntary" and "non-legally-binding."
The resolution had been watered down from an earlier version, which had implied the possibility that Security Council sanctions could be sought if Iran resumed any activity linked to enrichment and called on Iran to provide "unrestricted access" to U.N. inspectors.
These two parts of the resolution were dropped by the EU trio after Iran agreed to relinquish demands that it be allowed to operate 20 centrifuges for research purposes. Diplomats close to the talks said the Iranians agreed not to use the centrifuges but refused to give up their right to research and development
Recognizing Iran's right to research and development, diplomats in Vienna say, amounts to a de facto recognition that Iran has the right to a future uranium enrichment program.
The EU trio is hampered by the fact that Washington refuses to participate in any offer of incentives to Tehran, which Washington believes is only using the negotiations with the EU to avoid U.N. economic sanctions while it forges ahead with plans to develop the capability to produce a bomb.
Some diplomats say the EU plan is doomed without active participation from Washington, which cut diplomatic ties after its embassy staff in Tehran was taken hostage in 1979.