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Iran minister lands on nuke mission

New Delhi, Aug. 23: Iran has despatched foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi to India and other countries to garner support for its nuclear programme, which is fast putting Tehran on a collision course with Washington.

Kharrazi, who arrives here tomorrow, will spend only a few hours with his Indian counterpart Yashwant Sinha before leaving for other countries in the region, including China, Japan and Malaysia.

Iran, which is facing increasing pressure from the US to give up its nuclear weapons programme, would want India and others to convince the US to resolve the impasse amicably.

South Block officials tried to play down the sudden, whistle-stop visit of the Iranian foreign minister by describing it as part of the foreign office consultation mechanism the two countries have put in place.

Officials in the foreign ministry described Kharrazi’s brief stopover as a “transit halt”. They said the two sides are likely to discuss the recent developments in their neighbourhood, including the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly the nuclear impasse.

However, sources in the ministry pointed out that Kharrazi may take the opportunity to explain, to leaders in India and other countries he is scheduled to visit, his country’s stand on the nuclear programme and other issues, including the recent arrest of some al Qaida activists whom Tehran has lodged in jails.

The first phase of Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr — being built by the Russians — becomes critical next year. But reports from dissident Iranian groups have allegedly accused the government of pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons programme at Bushehr as well as Natanz, where it has a uranium enrichment and a heavy-water plant.

Iran claims its nuclear programme is “exclusively peaceful” and the reactors at Bushehr are aimed at meeting its domestic power target. But the country, which has the world’s second-largest deposit of natural gas and a substantial reserve of petroleum, has not been able to convince many with its argument.

Questions have been raised in different quarters why a country like Iran will have to depend on nuclear energy to meet its power target. An increasing number of countries are demanding that Tehran gives up its secret programme to make nuclear bombs.

Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, have been put in the “axis of evil” by the US administration. Tehran’s worry has increased manifold after the Iraq war brought the American troops at its doorstep.

It wants to avoid a confrontation with Washington but is also aware that giving up its nuclear weapons programme will mean making serious compromises with its national security, specially as it is hemmed in by nuclear Israel and Pakistan on two sides.

Unlike India, Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty of 1970, which prevents it from pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. But now the US and other western European countries want Tehran to sign an additional protocol to the NPT which allows the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors a random check of the nuclear sites in Iran without prior notice.

Indications suggest that Iran, which sees the world opinion shifting against it increasingly, is now willing to cut a deal with the US by agreeing to sign the additional protocol to the nuclear treaty. But it wants the US to guarantee it access to civilian nuclear technology-- something which is Iran’s right as part of being a signatory to the treaty.

On the al-Qaida activists lodged in the Iranian jails, Teheran wants to assure the US that the terrorists had crossed over from Pakistan but were not in a position to foment trouble as they were behind bars. Iran is not averse to handing them over to the Americans, but in return it wants the Mujahideen al Khalk members to be handed over to it. Given that it was the Khalk members who had exposed the clandestine nuclear weapons programme of Iran, it seems unlikely that Washington will oblige the Iranian leadership.

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