Iran pursues ballistic missile work, complicating nuclear talks

VIENNA, (Reuters) – Despite apparently reducing illicit purchases that breach U.N. sanctions, Iran is pursuing development of ballistic missiles, a confidential U.N. report says, posing an acute challenge to six powers negotiating with Tehran to rein in its nuclear programme.

On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described as “stupid and idiotic” Western expectations for his country to curb its missile development. He decreed mass production of ballistic weapons, striking a defiant tone just before nuclear talks resumed on Wednesday in Vienna.

The high-stakes negotiations aim for a deal by a July 20 deadline to end a long stand-off that has raised the risk of a wider Middle East war.

Tehran’s often repeated view that missiles should not be part of the nuclear talks appears to enjoy the support of Russia, one of the six global powers.

But a senior U.S. official made clear this week that Tehran’s ballistic capabilities must be addressed in the negotiations since U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran “among many other things, do say that any missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon must be dealt with.”

A ban on developing missiles suited to carrying a nuclear warhead is included in a 2010 Security Council resolution, its fourth – and toughest – imposed on the Islamic Republic for defying council demands that it suspend uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities of potential use in bomb-making.

The new report by the U.N. Panel of Experts, seen by Reuters, said Iran’s overall attempts to illicitly procure materials for its banned nuclear and missile programmes appear to have slowed down as it pursues negotiations with world powers that it hopes will bring an end to sanctions.

But the same report makes clear that, apart from holding off on test-firing one type of rocket, Iran shows no sign of putting the brakes on the expansion of its missile programme.

“Iran is continuing development of its ballistic missile and space programmes,” the experts said. “A new missile launch site 40 km (25 miles) from the city of Shahrud was identified in August 2013. A larger launch complex is assessed to be close to completion at the Imam Khomeini Space Center at Semnan for ballistic missiles and satellite launch vehicles.”

The report also cited what it described as the June 2013 opening of the Imam Sadeq Observation and Monitoring Center for monitoring space objects, including satellites.

The dispute over missiles has already surfaced behind closed doors in Vienna. On Wednesday, the first day of the latest round of the nuclear talks, the U.S. delegation made clear that it wanted to discuss both Iran’s ballistic missile programme and possible military dimensions of its past nuclear research.

But in a sign of the wide divergence between the U.S. and Iranian positions, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif merely laughed and ignored the remarks, according to an Iranian official present. An American official declined to comment but referred to remarks from a senior U.S. official earlier this week, who said “every issue” must be resolved.

ARMS EXPERT: LEAVE MISSILES ASIDE

Diplomats close to the talks say Britain, France and Germany agree with the U.S. view. But Russia, which has engaged in missile-technology trade with Iran, appears to disagree. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Tehran’s missile programme was not on the agenda.

The Islamic Republic denies accusations that it is seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons. It insists that its missiles are part of its conventional armed forces and rules out including them on the agenda for the nuclear discussions.

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said that missiles should not become a deal-breaker.

“The best way to address Iran’s potential to exploit nuclear-capable missiles is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme is sufficiently limited and transparent,” he said. “To seek Iran-specific limits on conventional weapons that Iran regards as vital to its self-defence would jeopardise the negotiations’ key objective.”

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