Iran’s Nuclear Program Moving Ahead As U.S. Pursues ‘Very Careful Engagement’

By Patrick Goodenough | April 9, 2009 | 4:27 AM EDT

( – As Iran marked “national nuclear day” on Thursday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected to announce new developments in the country’s nuclear program. This comes a day after the Obama administration announced a major change of policy, saying it will take part in direct, multi-party nuclear talks with Tehran.
"We believe that pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Wednesday. "There is nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon."
There was no immediate Iranian reaction to the U.S. decision, the latest in a series of overtures by the new administration that have largely drawn a lukewarm response from Iran’s leaders.
At a meeting in London on Wednesday, the six countries involved in a long-running effort to defuse the nuclear row – U.N. Security Council permanent members the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany (P5+1) – agreed to issue a formal invitation to Iran to join it in direct talks.
“We strongly urge Iran to take advantage of this opportunity to engage seriously with all of us in a spirit of mutual respect,” they said in a joint statement.
Following the exposure of Iran’s covert nuclear activities in 2002, the Bush administration supported efforts by the European trio of Britain, France and Germany to negotiate with Tehran, but the U.S. did not take part.
In 2006, the broader P5+1 group offered Iran a package of economic and diplomatic incentives in return for verifiably giving up uranium enrichment and processing activities. Tehran rejected the proposal, insisting on its right to process uranium for fuel.
In the central city of Isfahan on Thursday, Ahmadinejad was expected to inaugurate a manufacturing plant for nuclear fuel and announce advances in the field.
Earlier this week, Iran’s first vice president Parviz Davoudi said Ahmadinejad would use the occasion of the country’s 3rd national nuclear day to announce “good news” for the Iranian people.
Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful, electricity-generation purposes, but the U.S. and others suspect it is trying to master the technology that would allow it to develop nuclear weapons. Uranium enriched at lower levels is used as fuel in power plants, while highly-enriched uranium is a key ingredient of an atomic bomb.
Isfahan is the location of Iran’s Nuclear Technology Center, home to facilities that have been listed by various governments since the 1990s for proliferation and weapons of mass destruction-related concerns.
Other nuclear-related facilities include a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, in Isfahan province, and a Russian-built reactor near the southern port city of Bushehr.
‘Baseless accusations’
President Obama has voiced a willingness to engage with Iran on the basis of “mutual respect” after three decades of chilly ties, and in a Persian New Year message last month called for “a new beginning” in bilateral relations.
Tehran’s response to that approach was to demand the lifting of sanctions and the end of Washington’s support for Israel.
On Wednesday, Ahmadinejad in a speech in Isfahan said Iran was still waiting for “real and fundamental change” from the U.S.
“If Obama says he wants change, the U.S. should rectify its methods and policies,” Iranian news agencies quoted him as saying. “America should rectify the way it deals with other nations. It does not have the right to set the course for others and tell them how to live.”
The Tehran Times Wednesday complained that Obama’s statements about Iran were no different than those of his predecessor.
Pointing to his comments in Europe last week tying the need for a missile defense shield to the threat posed by Iran, it said he was sending “confusing and even contradictory signals.”
“As in the past, the chorus of baseless accusations against Iran will only please those groups inside and outside the United States that had started to feel uncomfortable about the possibility of a rapprochement between the two countries.”
He also denied, again, that Iran aims to manufacture atomic weapons, and said Iran considered the issue of its nuclear program to be “closed.”
State Department spokesman Robert Wood conceded Wednesday that Iran’s response to the U.S. overtures has been disappointing.
Asked about Iran’s decision this week to charge a detained Iranian-American journalist with espionage, he said, “obviously, we need a partner with an outstretched hand as well.”
Wood rejected criticism that the administration was moving too quickly, saying it had been carrying out “a very prudent review” on policy towards Iran for several months.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow