Middle East

Iran tries to link nuclear talks to Arab uprisings

Herman Nackaerts, center, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, arrives from Iran at Vienna's Schwechat airport, Austria,Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Senior officials of the U.N. atomic agency have returned from Tehran without a hoped-for deal that would have led to the resumption of a probe into allegations that Iran worked secretly on nuclear arms. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

ABU DHABI: Gulf Arab governments dismissed as “interference” an Iranian suggestion that unrest in Syria and Bahrain be discussed at nuclear talks between world powers and Iran, accusing Tehran of trying to dodge the main agenda.

The offer came as U.N. inspectors returned from talks in Tehran with no deal on reviving a nuclear investigation and no date for a new meeting, failing to produce even a small signal of hope for big power diplomacy aimed at averting a war.

The semiofficial Iranian news agency Mehr said Tuesday Tehran had proposed including Syria – where an increasingly sectarian civil war is raging – and Bahrain – which is grappling with unrest by majority Shiites – in the talks with world powers.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has proposed as a suggestion to Western countries that the crisis in Syria and Bahrain be among the issues discussed in negotiations in Kazakhstan,” Mehr quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi as saying.

The secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council said the bloc “categorically rejected” Iran’s proposal, saying it was evidence of Iranian meddling in the region, the Bahraini news agency BNA reported Thursday.

“This confirms Iran’s clear interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries, and its continuous efforts to destabilize the security of some of these Arab countries,” Abdulatif alZayani was quoted by BNA as saying.

Arab popular uprisings since 2011 have kindled increased strife between Shiites and Sunnis that Sunni-ruled Gulf states with restive Shiite communities blame on incitement from regional Shiite power Iran, which denies the accusation.

The GCC is a U.S.-allied, political and economic bloc comprising Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

The GCC is not represented at the intermittent and so far inconclusive talks six world powers are conducting with Iran to try to get it to rein in its disputed nuclear energy program.

Western diplomats have accused Iran in the past of avoiding the main point of the negotiations by trying to have the agenda widened to cover general security and economic issues.

The next negotiating session is to be held in Kazakhstan on Feb. 26. The West fears Iran is pursuing the means to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says it seeks only civilian atomic energy.

The deadlock is a chilling signal for a wider effort by six world powers to get Iran to curb activity that they believe could give it the capacity to build nuclear bombs – something Israel has suggested it will prevent by force if necessary.

“Despite its many commitments to do so, Iran has not negotiated in good faith,” said a Western diplomat accredited to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna who was not at the Tehran talks. “It appears that we now have to ask ourselves if this is still the right tactic.” Further alarming its foes, Iran said this week it was installing advanced machines to refine uranium – a step that could significantly speed up its accumulation of material that the West fears could be used to develop a nuclear weapon.

A diplomatic source confirmed Thursday that the IAEA, which regularly inspects Iranian nuclear facilities, had seen a small number of new-style centrifuges at Iran’s main enrichment plant at Natanz, positioned to be installed.

The U.N. watchdog has been trying since January last year to negotiate a framework with Iran that would let inspectors resume a long-stalled inquiry into suspected atom bomb research by the Islamic Republic.

The IAEA’s immediate priority had been to visit the Parchin military base southeast of Tehran.

It suspects explosives tests relevant to nuclear weapons may have taken place there, perhaps a decade ago, and then been concealed.

But Wednesday’s meeting in Tehran “could not finalize the document” on the inquiry, U.N. inspector Herman Nackaerts told reporters on his return to Vienna.

He said no date had been set for more talks, adding: “Time is needed to reflect on the way forward.”

Yet while talks go nowhere, the diplomatic clock is ticking.

Iran is expanding a stockpile of higher-grade 20-percent-enriched uranium ever closer to levels where a critical mass of weapons-grade material would be only a short step away – something that Israel says would be a “red line” for action.

Washington has also warned, in less direct terms, that it will do what it takes to prevent Iran getting the bomb.

Late last year it set a March deadline for Iran to start cooperating with the IAEA’s investigation, warning Tehran that it might otherwise be referred to the U.N. Security Council.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 15, 2013, on page 1.




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