North Korea's reclusive communist regime, long seen as a nuclear threat to the region, signed a nonaggression pact Thursday with Southeast Asia, in a largely symbolic move.
The move has no direct impact on the six-nation efforts to strip Pyongyang of its ability to produce nuclear weapons. However, it is a rare sign of reaching out to the international community by the highly secretive and isolationist country.
North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations at a ceremony on the last day of the group's annual security conference.
The TAC, which came into force in 1976, requires signatories to renounce the use or threat of force and calls for the peaceful settlement of conflicts. Aside from the 10 ASEAN members, 11 other countries outside the regional bloc have signed up to the pact.
The signing comes amid moves by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for economic and political incentives, including normalization of ties with Japan and the United States.
1. Iran Ends Cooperation with UN Nuclear Arms Probe
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Iran signaled Thursday that it will no longer cooperate with U.N. experts probing for signs of clandestine nuclear weapons work, confirming the investigation is at a dead end a year after it began. The announcement from Iranian Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh compounded skepticism about denting Tehran's nuclear defiance, just five days after Tehran stonewalled demands from six world powers that it halt activities capable of producing the fissile core of warheads.
Besides demanding a suspension of uranium enrichment ï¿½ a process that can create both fuel for nuclear reactors and payloads for atomic bombs ï¿½ the six powers have been pressing Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency's probe.
Iran, which is obligated as a signer of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty not to develop nuclear arms, raised suspicions about its intentions when it admitted in 2002 that it had run a secret nuclear program for nearly two decades in violation of its commitment.
The Tehran regime insists it halted such work and is now only trying to produce fuel for nuclear reactors to generate electricity. It agreed on a "work plan" with the Vienna-based IAEA a year ago for U.N. inspectors to look into allegations Iran is still doing weapons work.
At the time, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei hailed it as "a significant step forward" that would fill in the missing pieces of Tehran's nuclear jigsaw puzzle ï¿½ if honored by Iran. He brushed aside suggestions Iran was using the deal as a smoke screen to deflect attention from its continued defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand for a halt to uranium enrichment.
The investigation ran into trouble just months after being launched. Deadline after deadline was extended because of Iranian foot-dragging. The probe, originally meant to be completed late last year, spilled into the first months of 2008, and beyond.
Iran remains defiant. It dismisses as fabricated the evidence supplied by the U.S. and other members of the IAEA's governing board purportedly backing allegations that Iranians continue to work on nuclear weapons.
Officials say that among the evidence given to the IAEA are what seem to be Iranian draft plans to refit missiles with nuclear warheads; explosives tests that could be used to develop a nuclear detonator; and a drawing showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of warheads. There are also questions about links between Iran's military and civilian nuclear facilities.
On Thursday, Aghazadeh appeared to signal that his country was no longer prepared even to discuss the issue with the IAEA.
Investigating such allegations "is outside the domain of the agency," he said after meeting with ElBaradei. Any further queries on the issue "will be dealt with in another way," he said, without going into detail.
Britain, one of those suspicious of Iran's nuclear activities, was critical.
"We are concerned by reports that Iran is refusing to cooperate with the IAEA on allegations over nuclear weapons," the British Foreign Office said in a statement. "The IAEA has raised serious concerns over Iran's activities with a possible military dimension. If Iran is serious about restoring international confidence in its intentions, it must address these issues."
The IAEA asked in vain for explanations from Iran, and its last report in May said Iran might be withholding information on whether it tried to make nuclear arms. Reflecting ElBaradei's frustration, the report used language described by one senior U.N. official as unique in its direct criticism of Tehran. Aghazadeh's comments Thursday appeared to jibe with those of diplomats familiar with the probe who told The Associated Press that the IAEA had run into a dead end.
A senior diplomat on Thursday attributed Tehran's intransigence in part to anger over a multimedia presentation by IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen to the agency's 35 board members based on intelligence about the alleged weapons work. The diplomat, like others, agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because his information was confidential.
Tehran dismisses the suspicions of the U.S. and allies, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday again vowed that his country would not "retreat one iota" from pursuing uranium enrichment.
On Saturday, a U.S. diplomat had participated in talks with Iran held in Geneva, raising expectations that a compromise might be reached under which Iran would agree to temporarily stop expansion of enrichment activities. In exchange, the six world powers ï¿½ the U.S., Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China ï¿½ would hold off on adopting new U.N. sanctions against Iran.
But participants at Geneva said Iranian negotiators skirted the freeze issue despite the presence of U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday accused Iran of not being serious at the Geneva talks. She warned that all six nations were serious about a two-week deadline for Iran to agree to freeze suspect activities and start negotiations or else be hit with a fourth set of U.N. penalties. Aghazadeh, who is also head of Iran's atomic agency, played down the international complaints, but he also evaded a direct answer on whether Tehran would give any ground on an enrichment freeze. "Both sides are carefully studying the concerns and expectations of both sides," he told reporters.
1. India Expects Nuclear Accord Will Go to U.S. Congress by August
Liza Lin and Cherian Thomas
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India's government expects the U.S. nuclear energy accord to reach Congress by the end of next month, the final hurdle before a three-decade ban on importing reactors and fuel is lifted, junior foreign minister Anand Sharma said.
``Given India's genuine energy needs, India's credentials and India's engagement in the world, this will go through, we hope, by August,'' Sharma told Bloomberg News in an interview yesterday in Singapore.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is renewing his push for the agreement signed with President George W. Bush in 2005 after he survived a confidence vote in parliament July 22. Still, the accord can only be ratified by U.S. lawmakers after winning the consent of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 45- nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.
``We feel that the U.S. is sincere to engage with India and the rest of the international community because it will be a mutually beneficial engagement,'' Sharma said.
The deal, which will help boost India's power supplies and accelerate growth, needs to be approved by Congress before U.S. presidential elections in November. The White House has said it's ``mindful'' of the legislative calendar and expressed optimism the deal will be approved when it reaches Congress.
Prospects for the accord boosted shares of nuclear equipment makers yesterday as the agreement can generate more than $10 billion of orders for Indian companies, according to UBS AG.
Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., India's biggest power- equipment maker, had its biggest gain in five months, leading advances by Larsen & Toubro Ltd. and Areva T&D India Ltd., the local unit of the world's biggest builder of nuclear reactors.
The accord gives India access to fuel and nuclear reactors without joining the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The agreement will lift restrictions imposed on suppliers of nuclear technology after India tested atomic weapons in 1974.
The agreement divided India's political parties and prompted Singh's main ally, the communist parties, to withdraw support to the government this month, saying it would weaken India's ability to pursue an independent foreign policy.
That forced Singh to prove his majority in parliament. His Congress party-led coalition won enough votes to extend its four- year term and revive the push for the deal.
The IAEA board is scheduled to vote Aug. 1 in an extraordinary meeting on whether to endorse the accord, which will give inspectors access to 14 civilian atomic reactors. The inspections agreement is a key condition for any U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation treaty.
The agreement goes to the Nuclear Suppliers Group where the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, Japan, China and, most recently, Australia have already voiced support for giving India the necessary exemptions it needs to conduct trade in atomic material and equipment with member countries, the U.S.-India Business Council said this week.
Singh says the accord will help increase nuclear generation 10-fold and end blackouts in the world's second-most populous country after China. Shortage of power and infrastructure shaves 2 percentage points from India's annual economic growth, the finance ministry estimates. India needs to bridge that deficit to sustain growth of more than 10 percent and ease poverty.
The Bush administration bills the agreement as a way to help India meet its energy needs, bolster non-proliferation controls and strengthen U.S. relations with the Asian subcontinent.
``There is no reason why it shouldn't go through,'' Sharma said. ``This is a commitment made between the leaderships of the two largest democracies in the world. And we all honor our commitments.''
1. US Congressional Panel Backs Civilian Nuclear Cooperation with Russia
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A U.S. congressional panel endorsed a measure Thursday that would give conditional approval of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Russia.
The bill means that Congress will not block the deal with Russia despite objections from some lawmakers that Russia should not be rewarded until it does more to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.
The bill approved by the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee would require the president to certify that Russia is meeting certain conditions before authorizing nuclear cooperation.
Among other requirements, the president would have to certify once a year that Russia is taking certain steps to ensure that its government and citizens are not aiding Iran's nuclear weapon or ballistic missile programs. The president would also have to certify that Russia is supporting U.S. efforts to maintain international sanctions on Iran.
The Bush administration views the agreement with Russia as a breakthrough in cooperation reached at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Moscow over issues including missile defense, NATO expansion and differences on Iran. But critics assert that Russia is impeding international efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions and has actively helped it master some technologies.
Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, the committee's chairman, said following approval of the measure that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear technology should be a focus of U.S. relations with Moscow.
"Right now the priority issue is whether or not Iran gets nuclear weapons capability and what can we do to stop that," he said. "I think that should shape how we relate to Russia."
Some lawmakers from both major parties had urged the administration to drop the deal.
The committee's ranking Republican member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who had urged the White House not to submit the agreement to Congress, called the bill a "compromise text."
Under U.S. law, President George W. Bush's notification of Congress on May 13 began a process to complete it. The agreement will take effect unless both chambers of Congress pass resolutions opposing it within 90 working days.
Due to a miscalculation, the administration did not submit the deal in time to ensure that this Congress has the full 90 days left before it expires following elections in November. Thus, efforts to complete the agreement in this Congress could effectively expire unless it is specifically approved by the House and Senate. The bill endorsed Thursday would serve that purpose.
However, it would have to be passed by the full House and Senate and signed by the president before taking effect. It was not clear whether the bill had support in the Senate or whether Bush would sign it.
1. New Contamination Incident at French Nuclear Site
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Around 100 staff at a nuclear power plant in southern France were contaminated with a low dose of radiation on Wednesday, power firm EDF said, the latest incident there after a case of uranium spillage two weeks ago.
EDF said in a statement that sensors detected a rise in the level of radiation while maintenance work was being carried out at the Tricastin site's reactor number four, which had been shut since July 12.
The rise in radiation prompted 97 staff to be evacuated at around 9:30 a.m. local time and sent for medical tests.
"Seventy of them show low traces of radioelements, below one fortieth of the authorized limit," EDF said, adding that the incident would not affect the people's health or the environment.
A spokeswoman for the company later said the number of people who were lightly contaminated had risen to 100.
The incident follows another which has shaken confidence in the safety of France's nuclear industry, the biggest in Europe and one which President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to expand.
Plant operator Areva said on July 8 that 30 cubic meters of liquid containing non-enriched uranium was accidentally poured on to the ground and into a river at the Tricastin site.
That prompted Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo to order tests at all of France's nuclear power plants to ensure such leaks had not occurred elsewhere.
In the wake of the Tricastin incident, authorities banned fishing and swimming in the affected areas as well as the use of contaminated water.
Nuclear safety authority ASN criticized Areva for its handling of that incident, notably in the way in which it communicated with authorities. It also pointed to unsatisfactory security measures and operational procedures.
EDF said tests were being carried out to determine the cause of the latest incident, adding that the ASN had been informed immediately. Maintenance work at the reactor was also suspended.
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