1. IAEA Makes 1st Visit to Advanced Iran Centrifuge Site
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Iran has allowed top U.N. nuclear monitors to visit an advanced centrifuge development site for the first time in a gesture of transparency about its disputed atomic drive, diplomats familiar with the matter said.
One of the diplomats, close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the IAEA was nearing the end of an inquiry into Iran's nuclear activity and cited concern a new big power move to increase sanctions on Tehran could hurt the process.
Six world powers agreed in Berlin on Tuesday to the outline of a new U.N. sanctions resolution although diplomats said the draft lacked punitive trade measures Washington had sought.
The West suspects Iran, which hid efforts to enrich uranium from the IAEA until 2003, suspect Iran's declared quest for nuclear-generated energy is a front for bomb making.
Iran denies this and has defied U.N. resolutions demanding a nuclear halt, instead expanding an underground enrichment plant.
After a rare Tehran visit by IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei on January 11-12, the agency said Iran agreed to settle remaining questions in the long stalled inquiry within four weeks and also handed over some information about efforts to develop "a new generation" of centrifuges able to refine uranium much faster.
On Wednesday, diplomats familiar with IAEA-Iran relations told Reuters ElBaradei and his safeguards chief, Olli Heinonen, also visited a Tehran site where a centrifuge to replace Iran's current outmoded, breakdown-prone model is being developed.
"This was a research and development lab for their new design of P-2 centrifuge that they were able to see," the first diplomat said, in what was the first such visit since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad disclosed the activity in 2006.
U.N. inspectors had long demanded such access under the IAEA's Additional Protocol to assess how close Iran may be to mastering enrichment technology, and the scope of the current program to verify it is not for illicit military ends.
But Iran stopped permitting wider-ranging inspections beyond its few declared nuclear production sites in 2006 in retaliation for big power moves to adopt initial sanctions then.
IAEA NEEDS REGULAR ACCESS
"This visit to this new R&D centrifuge lab is in effect implementing the Additional Protocol. Of course this (access) needs to be formalized by Iran but this was a voluntary measure on their part covered by the Protocol," the diplomat said.
The diplomat, who like others asked not to be named in exchange for discussing politically sensitive and confidential information, said ElBaradei would detail his visit and results of the inquiry in a report due out around February 20.
But senior U.N. inspectors striving to wrap up the inquiry into Iran's shadowy nuclear past are concerned that any broader sanctions resolution could prompt Iran to stonewall anew.
"The Iranian reaction will be interesting to this resolution. It certainly will not be helpful, and it might be detrimental for their cooperation in finishing up the (inquiry). We're at a very delicate juncture," the diplomat said.
"Very good progress has been made this month. The IAEA is in the very last stretch, focusing on the most sensitive issue, the alleged efforts to weaponize (nuclear material), and the involvement of the military."
A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) last month concluded Iran had stopped an active, covert nuclear arms drive in 2003 but was still striving to develop enrichment abilities that could be turned to warheads later.
A Western diplomat accredited to the IAEA said the visit to the Tehran research site was not in itself significant since ElBaradei and Heinonen were not centrifuge technical experts.
A regular system of wider, snap inspections by agency experts would be crucial to defuse mistrust, the West says.
"Iran wants to present this gesture (visit) as a step forward so they can stave off more sanctions. It's clear they won't be able to do that," the Western diplomat told Reuters.
"More broadly, Iran was supposed to come forward with final answers by end of December. They didn't. The fact that they are continuing to play this game of dripping out information only goes to prove that they are not being up-front."
1. Pre-emptive Nuclear Strike a Key Option, Nato Told
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The west must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to try to halt the "imminent" spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, according to a radical manifesto for a new Nato by five of the west's most senior military officers and strategists.
Calling for root-and-branch reform of Nato and a new pact drawing the US, Nato and the European Union together in a "grand strategy" to tackle the challenges of an increasingly brutal world, the former armed forces chiefs from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands insist that a "first strike" nuclear option remains an "indispensable instrument" since there is "simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world".
The manifesto has been written following discussions with active commanders and policymakers, many of whom are unable or unwilling to publicly air their views. It has been presented to the Pentagon in Washington and to Nato's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, over the past 10 days. The proposals are likely to be discussed at a Nato summit in Bucharest in April.
"The risk of further [nuclear] proliferation is imminent and, with it, the danger that nuclear war fighting, albeit limited in scope, might become possible," the authors argued in the 150-page blueprint for urgent reform of western military strategy and structures. "The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction."
The authors - General John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff and Nato's ex-supreme commander in Europe, General Klaus Naumann, Germany's former top soldier and ex-chairman of Nato's military committee, General Henk van den Breemen, a former Dutch chief of staff, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, a former French chief of staff, and Lord Inge, field marshal and ex-chief of the general staff and the defence staff in the UK - paint an alarming picture of the threats and challenges confronting the west in the post-9/11 world and deliver a withering verdict on the ability to cope.
The five commanders argue that the west's values and way of life are under threat, but the west is struggling to summon the will to defend them. The key threats are:
ï¿½ Political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism.
ï¿½ The "dark side" of globalisation, meaning international terrorism, organised crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
ï¿½ Climate change and energy security, entailing a contest for resources and potential "environmental" migration on a mass scale.
ï¿½ The weakening of the nation state as well as of organisations such as the UN, Nato and the EU.
To prevail, the generals call for an overhaul of Nato decision-taking methods, a new "directorate" of US, European and Nato leaders to respond rapidly to crises, and an end to EU "obstruction" of and rivalry with Nato. Among the most radical changes demanded are:
ï¿½ A shift from consensus decision-taking in Nato bodies to majority voting, meaning faster action through an end to national vetoes.
ï¿½ The abolition of national caveats in Nato operations of the kind that plague the Afghan campaign.
ï¿½ No role in decision-taking on Nato operations for alliance members who are not taking part in the operations.
ï¿½ The use of force without UN security council authorisation when "immediate action is needed to protect large numbers of human beings".
In the wake of the latest row over military performance in Afghanistan, touched off when the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said some allies could not conduct counter-insurgency, the five senior figures at the heart of the western military establishment also declare that Nato's future is on the line in Helmand province.
"Nato's credibility is at stake in Afghanistan," said Van den Breemen.
"Nato is at a juncture and runs the risk of failure," according to the blueprint.
Naumann delivered a blistering attack on his own country's performance in Afghanistan. "The time has come for Germany to decide if it wants to be a reliable partner." By insisting on "special rules" for its forces in Afghanistan, the Merkel government in Berlin was contributing to "the dissolution of Nato".
Ron Asmus, head of the German Marshall Fund thinktank in Brussels and a former senior US state department official, described the manifesto as "a wake-up call". "This report means that the core of the Nato establishment is saying we're in trouble, that the west is adrift and not facing up to the challenges."
Naumann conceded that the plan's retention of the nuclear first strike option was "controversial" even among the five authors. Inge argued that "to tie our hands on first use or no first use removes a huge plank of deterrence".
Reserving the right to initiate nuclear attack was a central element of the west's cold war strategy in defeating the Soviet Union. Critics argue that what was a productive instrument to face down a nuclear superpower is no longer appropriate.
Robert Cooper, an influential shaper of European foreign and security policy in Brussels, said he was "puzzled".
"Maybe we are going to use nuclear weapons before anyone else, but I'd be wary of saying it out loud."
Another senior EU official said Nato needed to "rethink its nuclear posture because the nuclear non-proliferation regime is under enormous pressure".
Naumann suggested the threat of nuclear attack was a counsel of desperation. "Proliferation is spreading and we have not too many options to stop it. We don't know how to deal with this."
Nato needed to show "there is a big stick that we might have to use if there is no other option", he said.
Oil near $100 and rapid economic growth are giving growing momentum to Middle East plans to develop nuclear energy to help meet escalating power demand.
Record oil revenues have driven an economic boom that is straining the region's power grids. To keep the export cash coming in, some of the largest oil and gas producers are looking at nuclear energy to minimize burning fuel for power at home.
"Nuclear is the logical thing for countries in the Gulf to do," said Giacomo Luciani, director of the Swiss-based Gulf Research Center Foundation. "When oil was cheap and abundant, it was right to burn it for power. Right now it's irrational."
Nuclear power could come quickly to the region if cash-rich states such as the United Arab Emirates buy reactors off the shelf from international companies, rather than embark upon the decades-long process of developing the technology themselves.
The region's autocratic rulers could quickly push through the financing and licensing, processes that take years in more democratic countries, and have nuclear power plants up and running within a decade.
"The technology is available," said Malcolm Grimston, associate fellow at British think tank Chatham House.
"My suspicion is that it can be done much more quickly in some of these countries than in the U.S. and the UK. If you've got money ready to go and the licensing system that says 'right, we're accepting this without further ado', then you could have nuclear electricity generation in about six years."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave nuclear power a push forward on a visit to the Gulf last week, signing a cooperation deal with the UAE and offering his country's nuclear know-how to the world's largest oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
Sarkozy, who has already signed civilian nuclear deals with Arab oil producers Algeria and Libya, has made no secret of his view that Muslim and Arab states have a right to atomic power.
French companies Total (TOTF.PA: Quote, Profile, Research), Suez (LYOE.PA: Quote, Profile, Research) and Areva (CEPFi.PA: Quote, Profile, Research) said they would join forces to develop plans for two new-generation nuclear reactors in the UAE, with a possible start-up date of 2016.
Off-the-shelf technology such as Areva's reactors would require the UAE to import nuclear fuel rather than enrich uranium itself. That would limit potential crossover with a nuclear arms development and ease some of the strategic concerns that have surrounded Iran's program.
"Those strategic concerns would still be there," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But they would be mitigated if the fuel came from an internationally controlled facility."
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a loose gathering of Arab states including the UAE, said in 2006 that it was studying developing a joint nuclear energy program. The announcement raised concern of a regional arms race between the bloc and Iran. The U.S. and other western governments accuse Iran of attempting to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
The increasingly commercialized nature of nuclear technology means there is little Western governments could do to stop other countries in the Middle East buying reactors, Grimston said.
"Whether the West smiles on them or not I'm not sure that today's governments of the West would actually be in a position to stop... the sale of a reactor if that was what the countries of the region really wanted to buy," he said.
Competition between sellers, along with competition among buyers in the region to be first to have nuclear power, could also speed the process, analysts said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year his country would consider helping the kingdom with a possible atomic energy program. China, too, might look for a role, analysts said.
The UAE is talking to several countries -- not just France -- about its nuclear ambitions, an official said last week.
Natural gas is the fuel of choice for electricity generation in many countries in the Middle East, but power growth has been so fast that it has outstripped gas supplies.
Demand for electricity across the GCC is growing at an annual rate of around 8 percent, said Rajnish Goswami, vice president of gas and power at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. The speed of demand growth has encouraged governments to look at all their potential power supply options, including coal.
With the exception of Iran and Qatar, the rest of the countries in the region are short of gas. The UAE has begun imports from Qatar, but will still need more gas early next decade. Iran has yet to develop its gas for exports, and Qatar has put new projects on hold to study the performance of its giant North Field, raising questions over how the region will source future additional gas supply needs.
"For the UAE, it's not clear where its gas is going to come from," Goswami said. "I'm not sure that nuclear has a stronger commercial case than imported coal or gas, but it's an option that needs to be looked at."
The region's governments would also rather see gas used as a feedstock for petrochemical plants and heavy industry as they look to diversify their economies away from dependence on oil export revenues.
The departure of the State Department's No. 3 official adds uncertainty to a U.S. nuclear deal with India that is already in deep trouble.
The United States announced Friday that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns would step down in March. Though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said he would remain as the chief U.S. negotiator for the deal even after his departure, it was not immediately clear what his role will be.
It also was unclear whether his resignation as a full-time diplomat would set back dwindling hopes to complete the deal during the Bush administration, which ends in a year.
"It could go either way," said Sharon Squassoni, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who opposes the deal. "You could see this as a concession that it is looking increasingly unlikely that all the pieces will be in place to get the deal through Congress, and that it is not going any further."
But Squassoni also noted that the new arrangement could help Burns focus on India, which proponents hope is correct. In his current position, Burns is responsible for a host of time-consuming issues, including the negotiations on U.N. sanctions against Iran and on Kosovo's likely declaration of independence from Serbia, which the United States supports.
In a ceremony with Rice to announce his departure, Burns said he would look for opportunities in the private sector after leaving his post.
He said he was leaving because it is "time for me to meet my obligations to my wife and three daughters, and it's time to pursue other ventures outside the government."
Some proponents of the deal argue that the new arrangement will allow Burns to spend more time ensuring that the Indian deal gets swift approval by international regulatory bodies in coming months. Burns, a well-known official with U.S. lawmakers, also will be able to make the case for approval by Congress, where some members have misgivings about it.
"I think he is willing to see this baby through, and I think he will pull it off," said Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and current director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who supports the deal. "I don't see this as any administration signal that they are giving up."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration has no doubt that Burns is up to the job, noting his reputation for hard work.
"Nick's one of these guys that manages to find 27 hours in the day," McCormack said.
Nevertheless, his task will be formidable.
The deal would allow the United States to send nuclear fuel and technology to India, which has been cut off from international atomic markets because of its refusal to sign nonproliferation accords or accept their inspection regimes and its testing of nuclear weapons.
Although most major opposition in Congress has been countered, the deal still faces tough questions in India. The government has set up a committee to examine the pact, which Indian critics say could cap the country's nuclear weapons program and would allow the United States to dictate Indian foreign policy.
The agreement still faces several other approvals even if the Indian parliament should accept it.
Opponents in the United States say the extra fuel the measure provides could boost India's nuclear bomb stockpile by freeing up its domestic uranium for use in weapons.
That, they say, could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia, where India's neighboring Pakistan and China already are nuclear-armed.
Some of those critics think that more hard work by Burns will not be enough to win a deal.
"If he maintains his focus, I can't see that this announcement will have a great effect," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "But this is a deal that is already on life support."
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