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Iran's disturbing return to uranium enrichment

Iran's defiance is even beginning to frustrate its nuclear ally, Russia. That may be a good thing. Moscow's intervention may help resolve the latest standoff between Tehran and the European Union over Iran's nuclear activities, which Washington and others worry are intended to produce weapons-grade uranium.

They have ample reason to fret. For 17 years, Iran went about covertly developing uranium-enrichment technology without telling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). When Iran was threatened with being reported to the United Nations Security Council, it agreed in November of 2004 to freeze enrichment and to begin talks with the EU (represented by Britain, France and Germany) on exchanging its efforts to enrich uranium for economic aid and other incentives. The negotiations have been hampered by Tehran's dogged insistence that it has the legal right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium to a level needed to make fuel to generate electricity, which it desperately needs. That's true. But Iran is citing the same treaty that it has previously defied by deceiving inspectors.

The underlying problem is that the nuclear technology for generating electricity can be used to process uranium further in order to make nuclear weapons. There are legitimate fears that Iran intends to do this, either in secret or by developing the technology under inspection and then withdrawing from the treaty to make a bomb. An Iranian dissident who helped uncover Tehran's past nuclear secrets -- and its breach of the non-proliferation treaty -- insists that Iran has already built about 4,000 centrifuges capable of processing uranium for a nuclear bomb.

Tehran had agreed to freeze its nuclear activities as part of its talks with the EU, but this week it threw a spanner into the works by resuming uranium conversion at a nuclear plant near Isfahan. To make matters worse, Iran's new President, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, engaged in unnecessarily provocative rhetoric. Pandering to nationalist sentiment in his country, he said the EU's offer of civilian nuclear, commercial and political co-operation in exchange for abandoning efforts that could be used to make bombs and for allowing international verification is an "insult."

To its credit, Russia has urged Iran to reverse course and stick with the negotiations. "The wise decision would be to stop work that has begun on uranium conversion without delay," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Russia is eager to continue working with Iran on civilian nuclear-power generation and has made the argument in Tehran that, financially, it makes much more sense for Iran to buy fuel from a supplier country such as itself and use it under strict, verifiable IAEA regulations.

Russia's obvious self-interest should not matter. It is paramount that Moscow persuade its nuclear partner that it must live up to its international commitments and that the world is much better off without another nuclear-weapons state.

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