By Michael Evans, Defence Editor
IRAN formally suspended its controversial uranium-enrichment programme yesterday but doubts remain about its true intentions.
The United States is convinced that Tehran is engaged in a clandestine nuclear weapons project.
At first glance the European triumvirate of Britain, France and Germany, which has been diplomatically pummelling Iran into reversing its momentum towards a nuclear bomb, won a notable round with Iran yesterday.
However, although Iran appeared to have conceded to the European Unions entreaties in return for trade and political deals, there are still question marks about what Iran may have been up to in secret and whether it will stick to the latest moratorium. The last suspension of uranium enrichment, announced in November last year, survived for only seven months.
Now Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has told Tehran that if it reneged on this latest suspension deal, the three European nations would reserve the right to take the country to the United Nations, a move Iran has been fighting to avoid.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is based in Vienna, said that the suspension of Irans operation appeared to be genuine. I think pretty much everything has come to a halt, he said.
Final confirmation is expected at a meeting of the IAEA board on Thursday.
Colin Powell, the outgoing US Secretary of State, said last week that Washington had intelligence that indicated that Iran was trying to equip long-range missiles to carry nuclear warheads.
However, even John Bolton, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and one of the most hawkish members of the US Administration, has conceded that Iran would not be in a position to weaponise its missiles with nuclear warheads until the end of the decade.
An IAEA official said that the nuclear watchdogs inspectors, who are in Iran, had reported that Tehran, up to last week, had succeeded in converting two metric tonnes of basic uranium yellow cake into uranium hexafluoride, a gas that can then be introduced into a centrifuge system, resulting in bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU).
However, the inspectors have not found any evidence of this and, even if they had, two tonnes of basic uranium converted into gas would still not produce a significant quantity of HEU.
A nuclear warhead would need to have a minimum of 25kg (55lb) of HEU; and two tonnes of yellow cake would produce only 15 per cent of the required amount, the official of the IAEA said. Nevertheless, with the United States playing a waiting game and greeting every apparent Iranian concession with maximum scepticism, the Europeans are hoping that their tough diplomacy will keep the hardest of the hardliners in Tehran, and the hawks in Washington, at bay.
One diplomatic source said: When you are falling over a precipice and you see a branch sticking out, you grab it. So todays suspension is a good step, but who knows? Perhaps the Iranians are just buying time.