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Iran Raises Hopes Of Nuke Deal.

Larijani on Feb. 11 held out hope for a "negotiated settlement" as he said Iran's nuclear programme would pose no threat to Israel or any other state. He told an international security conference in Munich his government was willing to discuss technical limitations on uranium enrichment, to ensure it could not make the highly enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon.

In remarks which deviated from a prepared text, Larijani said Iran was open to talks on a multinational arrangement for enrichment. But he suggested Tehran still considered it had the right to conduct its own enrichment. Despite international fears that Iranian rhetoric would be ratcheted up on Feb. 11 as hundreds of thousands rallied in Tehran to mark the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iran's leaders said they were open to compromise over the programme, although they would not abandon it.

After talks with Solana, Larijani struck an optimistic note: "An important point is that I felt that Europe has the necessary will for a settlement of this case and there is the political will on our side to have a negotiated settlement". Earlier, he told the conference: "There are solutions to address your concern: we don't want you to be concerned". EU officials said the meeting was too brief to ascertain whether Larijani's comments represented a potential breakthrough.

At a Tehran rally on Feb. 11, President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad adopted a less combative tone, saying Iran was ready for "dialogue" and would remain within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits the development of atomic weapons. But Ahmadi-Nejad stressed that Iran "would never accept humiliation" by suspending nuclear activities, which the UNSC has demanded by this month. He told cheering crowds: "A huge power like Iran cannot be threatened with sanctions".

Iran's reformists and pragmatic conservatives have in recent weeks been trying to pressurise Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to make Ahmadi-Nejad adopt a more measured approach. The FT on Feb. 12 quoted Nasser Hadian, professor of politics at Tehran University, as saying he detected in the Feb. 11 speech little evidence of a significant shift in Ahmadi-Nejad's views. Hadian added: "He was as tough as ever". Ahmadi-Nejad said Iran had already achieved "its inalienable right", an apparent reference to proficiency in fuel-cycle technology, and promised further news of "great" progress.

The president did not, as had been expected by some Western diplomats, announce an expansion of the number of centrifuges at Natanz. Neither did he announce that gas had been introduced to the centrifuges, as some had predicted.

A report from Muhammad ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was due to be presented to the UN watchdog's board on Feb. 21. ElBaradei has tried to get negotiations under way by calling for a "time out", in which Iran would suspend enrichment simultaneously with the start of talks.

On Feb. 11 a senior US defence official in Baghdad said 170 coalition troops had been killed by Iranian-made roadside bombs, as US anger rose at Tehran's alleged involvement in the war. The official said there was "a growing body" of evidence of Iranian weapons being smuggled into Iraq and used to kill their soldiers.

On Feb. 9 in Seville, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Washington had "pretty good" evidence that Iran was providing militias in Iraq with sophisticated explosive devices called "explosively formed projectiles" (EFP). He said the evidence included serial numbers and markings on fragments of exploded devices. Tehran denies the charge and blames US soldiers for the violence and for inflaming tensions between Shi'ites and once-dominant Sunnis.

Officials showed journalists fragments of what they said were Iranian-manufactured weapons, including one part of an EFP - strong enough to penetrate the armour of an Abrams tank - and tail fins from 81 mm and 60 mm mortar bombs. The senior US official said: "The weapons had characteristics unique to being manfactured in Iran. Iran is the only country in the region that produces these weapons". He and other MNF officials said they were showing the evidence now out of concern about the "vast increase" in sophisticated weapons used by Iraqi militants against US forces in 2006.

Washington has long accused Tehran of fanning violence in Iraq by giving sophisticated bomb-making technology, money and training to militant Shi'ite groups, some of which have links with Iraq's Shi'ite-led government. "We assess these activities are coming from the highest levels of the Iranian government", said one of the officials, a senior defence analyst, referring to the training and funding of Iraqi militant groups.

The briefing came amid rising US-Iranian tension. The officials said Iran had several surrogate groups operating in Iraq using the EFPs, among them rogue elements of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi militia, to whom Iran was supplying weapons and guerrilla warfare training.

The Pentagon calls Jaysh al-Mahdi the biggest threat to peace in Iraq. Sadr, a key ally of PM Nouri al-Maliki, denies any involvement in attacks to troops.

The Shi'ite theocracy of Iran resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq after Saddam's Ba'thist dictatorship fell in the 2003 US-led invasion. Washington has repeatedly told Tehran not to fuel violence in Iraq.

Two US aircraft carrier groups have been stationed in the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran, with a third carrier group expected in the area shortly, although President Bush has said he has no intention of invading the Islamic Republic. But some war critics say the Bush administration's language on Iran echoes comments made leading up to the 2003 invasion. The main justification given for the invasion was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but the WMD were never found and Washington later blamed faulty intelligence.

Given the criticism which still dogs Bush over the handling of that intelligence, US officials have stepped more carefully in preparing their dossier to support their claims that Iran is interfering in Iraq. Officials do not want to be accused of either overstating the case against Iran or presenting information which appears poorly sourced.

Ahmadi-Nejad on Feb. 11 told the Tehran rally: "We are a friend of Iraq. We have common culture and history, and Iraq's stability, security and integrity, means Iran's stability, security and integrity". Referring to the seizure by US forces of a number of Iranians in Iraq over the past two months, Ahmadi-Nejad said: "You send a message to us asking for help to leave Iraq, but you didn't listen to our advice and instead arrested a few people".

Gates dismissed suggestions that the recent increase in anti-Iran rhetoric was a prelude to war. After Khamenei on Feb. 8 threatened to respond to any US attack on Iran, Gates said it was "just another day in the Persian Gulf". Asked later whether his response was aimed at ratcheting down the US rhetoric, he replied: "In the last few weeks there's been an effort in Washington actually to tone down everybody else. I don't know how many times the president, [Secretary of State] Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran, that the second carrier group is there to reassure our allies, as well as to send a signal that we've been in the Persian Gulf for decades and we intend to stay there. And I think these are fairly modest statements, frankly".
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Feb 19, 2007
Words:1216
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