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No appetite for carrots, no fear of sticks
Iran has carried out its threat to restart its nuclear programme, removing the seals on its uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan. European offers of political and economic incentives, designed to dissuade the theocratic Middle Eastern state from building atomic bombs, have not proved enticing enough. Is a more aggressive approach called for?
THESE are particularly edgy times for anyone concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons. On Sunday August 7th, the latest round of six-country talks over North Korea's nuclear programme ended in deadlock. The next day, Iran formally rejected a package of political and economic incentives from Europe that was designed to put a stop to its suspected nuclear-weapons programme, and resumed work at its uranium-conversion plant near Isfahan. While the North Korean negotiations are due to restart in three weeks, it looks like the talking may be over, for now, between Iran and the three European countries—France, Britain and Germany—that have been trying to coax the Islamic republic away from the bomb.
The announcement that Iran was once again working on uranium came from Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the country's Atomic Energy Organisation. This work, he said, had resumed under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog. Earlier on Monday, IAEA inspectors had arrived at the plant to check surveillance equipment and oversee the removal of seals, which had been put in place when all of Iran's nuclear-fuel work was suspended late last year, following talks in Paris with the Europeans. A reporter from Reuters news agency, who witnessed the restarting of operations at Isfahan, said that the plant had earlier been surrounded by dozens of anti-aircraft batteries.
This was not the only bad news for those hoping to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions. Also on Monday, Tehran replaced its chief negotiator in the talks with the Europeans since 2003, Hassan Rohani, with the more conservative Ali Larijani, who is close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The man behind the change was Iran's new, hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had been sworn in only a few days earlier. Mr Rohani was no pushover. Mr Larijani is likely to be even less accommodating.
At Isfahan, natural uranium (yellowcake) is turned into a gas that can then be spun in centrifuge machines to produce more usable uranium. So far, Tehran has not restarted work on the most sensitive part of the nuclear fuel cycle, uranium enrichment—a process that can be used to make either fuel for reactors or nuclear warheads. But it may be about to do so. On Wednesday, workers unsealed the section of the Isfahan plant where the final conversion to create weapons-grade uranium is carried out, again under IAEA supervision.
In response to Iran's resumption of its nuclear activities, the IAEA called an emergency meeting of its 35-member board. This began on Tuesday but was quickly adjourned to give the participants more time to haggle over the text of a resolution urging Tehran to suspend operations again. The Europeans and Americans have given a warning that this could lead to an entirely different type of diplomatic process: one that sees Iran referred to the UN Security Council, with a view to economic sanctions being imposed. Nevertheless, the Iranians are putting on an unconcerned face: “Even if they issue a resolution tomorrow, since it would have no legal basis…we won't accept it and will carry on with our work,” Mr Saeedi told reporters on Monday.
Mastering the techniques involved in enriching uranium (so far Iran claims to have done only experimental work) is one of the biggest hurdles to bomb-building. However, Iran insists that its nuclear programme is peaceful. It says it needs nuclear power as an alternative energy source to meet booming electricity demand and preserve its large oil and gas reserves for export. In May, its foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, told the five-yearly review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that his country had a right under the NPT to a variety of nuclear technologies and was determined to use them. Yet Iran has a 20-year record of lies, cover-ups and evasions in its dealings with IAEA inspectors.
The Iranians might argue that the resumption of work at Isfahan should come as no surprise, as they had said from the start that the suspension would be only temporary. Nevertheless, there will be genuine disappointment that the recent talks appear to have led nowhere. The Europeans had hoped that Iran might be persuaded to bring a permanent halt to all uranium and plutonium work if it received the right inducements, including trade and other, less proliferation-prone nuclear technologies. The latest package of incentives included offers of help to develop civilian nuclear energy and in becoming a leading transit route for Central Asian oil. But Iran said it was unacceptable because it denied the country the right to produce its own nuclear fuel. Mr Saeedi described the proposal as “very insulting and humiliating”.
Earlier this year, the Europeans persuaded America's president, George Bush, to support their incentives-based approach. He agreed that Iran could open talks on membership of the World Trade Organisation and import spare parts for its ageing fleet of civilian aircraft. But Tehran's decision to back away from the process, coupled with recent political developments—America criticised the election that brought Mr Ahmadinejad to power—has complicated things. Iran seems determined to dust down its nuclear programme. And it is not clear that its government, having failed to take the carrots, would respond any more encouragingly to sticks.