JACK Straw, the Foreign Secretary, has joined with his French and German counterparts to urge the Iranian government to abandon its controversial nuclear fuel enrichment programme and accept tougher UN inspections.
British officials said the confidential letter sent in early August from Mr Straw, Dominique de Villepin and Joska Fischer to Iranian foreign minister Kamal Karrazi was intended to stress to Iran the seriousness of its position and the importance of it taking action.
Amid suggestions that the letter was sent in the face of opposition from Washington, the officials emphasised that the US authorities were aware of the letter before it was sent, and insisted that the UK and US shared the common objective of securing Iranian compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Nevertheless, the letter appeared to highlight a difference in tactics between the Bush administration, which has sought to isolate the Islamic regime, and the UK and European efforts to engage with Tehran.
In the letter, Mr Straw and his counterparts are reported to have urged Iran to sign, implement and ratify a protocol to the NPT that provides for intrusive inspections and to halt its uranium enrichment programme, which the West fears could be designed to produce nuclear weapons.
The letter is said to have raised the prospect of some cooperation on technology, without specifically pledging help with a civilian nuclear energy programme, if the Iranians come into compliance. British officials insisted that the letter was not offering a trade-off.
Article 4 of the NPT, they pointed out, affirms the right of treaty parties to develop civil nuclear programmes. Implicit in securing Iranian compliance with their NPT obligations, the officials argued, was a recognition of its right to develop a civil nuclear programme.
The treaty says that party countries are "entitled to participate in the fullest possible exchange of scientific information for ... the further development of the applications of atomic energy for peaceful purposes".
The letter was also "fully complimentary", officials argued, with the outcome of last week’s meeting of the governing board of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), which gave Tehran an ultimatum to prove by 31 October it has no secret weapons programme or be reported to the Security Council for possible sanctions. That outcome was endorsed by the US, the officials pointed out.
On 18 August, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami wrote to European leaders pledging that Iran would never divert its civilian nuclear programme for military purposes. It did not, however, commit Iran to sign or ratify the protocol.
A leading conservative cleric yesterday said that Iran should withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and should not consent to unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said:
"North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Many countries have not even signed it. It would have been better if Iran had not signed it."