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Despite Western Opposition, Iran Reopens Nuclear Centers

By Steven R. Weisman 
and Nazila Fathi
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

Iran broke open internationally monitored seals on at least three of its nuclear facilities on Tuesday, clearing the way for uranium enrichment activities that Europeans and Americans say are a crucial step toward making a nuclear weapon.

The Iranians said the step was only for research on enriching uranium, and outside experts said Iran was still years away from producing enough fuel for a bomb.

But the United States and its European allies condemned the action and stepped up a campaign to persuade the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions, perhaps by the end of the month.

It was unclear whether Russia and China would support a move toward sanctions, even though both called on Iran as recently as this weekend not to resume enrichment. A European diplomat acknowledged that there was still an “obvious reluctance” by the two countries to “gang up on the Iranians.”

A senior administration official noted, however, that a Foreign Ministry statement in Moscow declared on Tuesday that Russia was “deeply disappointed by Iran’s declared decision” and recalled that a Russian envoy had “insistently advised them not to take this step” in a visit to Tehran last weekend.

“For the Russians, this is an angry statement,” said the administration official, who did not want to be identified while discussing tactics or strategy, as opposed to settled policy. The official added that U.S. officials would confer with the other Europeans and the Russians in the next couple of days before deciding what action to take against Iran.

“We view this as a serious escalation on the part of Iran on the nuclear issue,” said Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman. “What you see here is the international community coming out and sending a very clear message to Iran that their behavior is unacceptable.”

German, French and British officials joined in assailing the Iranian action. Over the last year, the three nations persuaded the Bush administration to go along with their effort to negotiate with Iran to keep a freeze on activities that Iran says are peaceful but that many Western experts believe are part of a covert weapons program.

The negotiations involved European offers of economic incentives, including the sale of aircraft parts and talks leading to trade preferences. But Iran’s action appears to have derailed any such discussions for now.

“The Iranians have behaved so remarkably badly, it’s hard to believe that the international community will do anything other than put them in front of the ultimate court of international public opinion,” a European diplomat said, referring to the Security Council. “That is where the Iranians are heading.” The official did not want to be identified by name or country to preserve a united front with his European colleagues.

President Jacques Chirac of France criticized Iran’s action as a grave error, and the new German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Iran was sending “very, very disastrous signals.”