BERLIN – Top Western diplomats and defense secretaries see Iran as exploiting the negotiating process to ward off new sanctions, while allowing its scientists to further develop highly enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear weapons.

US and European officials at a gathering of the world’s top defense officials in Munich rejected statements from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki late on Friday that Teheran was “approaching a final agreement.”

Mottaki attempted to revive a UN proposal in which Iran would swap enriched uranium for fuel rods to be used in its nuclear power plants, but with new Iranian conditions added to the plan.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said Iran’s tactics were a “transparent play for time.”

And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he saw Teheran’s latest offer to settle the ongoing nuclear dispute as another sign of bad-faith bargaining.

Westerwelle said on Saturday at the security conference in the Bavarian capital that “our hand is still reaching out toward them. But so far it’s reaching out into nothingness. And I’ve seen nothing since yesterday that makes me want to change that view.”

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates sharply criticized the Iranians during a visit to Ankara, suggesting that Washington was losing its patience.

“The reality is they’ve done nothing to assure the international community” or “to stop their progress toward [building] a nuclear weapon,” Gates said, “and therefore various nations need to think about whether it is time for a different tack.”

“Iran is the only country in the region that has publicly declared its intent to destroy another country in the region,” Gates told reporters in Turkey, in reference to Iran’s threats to Israel. If Iran proceeds with this program “unrestrained,” there is a “real danger of proliferation” that would destabilize the region.

US National Security Adviser Gen. (ret.) James Jones spoke of Iran’s continued “puzzling defiance” of Western demands that it freeze uranium enrichment.

“We have not seen indications that it is willing to
do so at this time,” he said.

US Sen. Joe Lieberman, the influential Connecticut independent, said the time for talk was over and that the international community should pursue “tough economic sanctions to make diplomacy work.” He called Mottaki’s comments “laughable” and “intellectually dishonest.”

“He came here to talk, talk, talk and not to walk the walk,” Lieberman said.

On the sidelines of the Munich conference, Mottaki met with International Atomic Energy Agency director-general Yukiya Amano behind closed doors on Saturday.

Afterward, Mottaki told reporters the two had discussed the details of the swap proposal, but he did not mention any tangible progress. He reiterated his comments of the previous night, saying he sees “the situation as positive for reaching an understanding.”

Mottaki made an unexpected last-minute appearance at the Munich conference and said on Friday an agreement could be reached in a “not too distant future.”

“If there is really a new approach to working together, then concrete deeds must follow the words coming from Iran,” said Westerwelle.

The icy response of Germany’s top diplomat to Mottaki comes in the wake of a report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily that a high-level scientist from a former Soviet Union nuclear laboratory is in Iran developing a construction plan for functioning atomic warheads.

According to the report, Western diplomats and intelligence officers confirmed the engineering plan to develop nuclear warheads. The disclosure about the Russian scientist and the blueprint for atomic warheads stems from an International Atomic Energy Agency document obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Writing in Die Welt, Richard Herzinger, a prominent commentator on Iran, urged in a front page Saturday editorial that the “West must, in the meantime, rapidly make the transition to intensified sanctions,” even if China fails to join a new round of penalties.

“Iran must be diplomatically isolated and that Iran’s foreign minister Mottaki was fawned over at the Munich Security Conference is not a good beginning,” Herzinger wrote.

While Russia has sent a lukewarm signal that it is prepared to move forward with a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions, China has vehemently rejected new sanctions and insisted on diplomacy and the negotiating process.

When asked about Herzinger’s criticism,
Wolfgang Ischinger, director of the Munich conference and a former German ambassador to the US and United Kingdom, told the The Jerusalem Post that that “is the risk one runs when inviting Mottaki.” One “has to be speak not only with friends but with opponents,” Ischinger said.

According to Ischinger, the US had also “encouraged” him to sound out possibilities in an informal way with Iran to resolve the nuclear dispute. He was “not surprised” that there was “no new offer” from Iran, adding that he was “skeptical that the there would be a breakthrough.”

Jürgen Jentsch, a spokesman for the Munich
conference, told the Post that Ischinger was in Israel last week and attended a conference in Tel Aviv.

Observers view Ischinger’s comments on Thursday in the Bayernkurier newspaper as playing down the Iranian threat. Ischinger said, “The country has still not built an atomic bomb. I can understand that Iran’s politics after the experience of the last decades leans toward feeling threatened and the country finds very few partners in the region with whom it can interact.”

When questioned about his comments, Ischinger told the Post that Iran’s politics must be seen within the context of the war with Iraq (1980-1988).

“That is neither an excuse nor a justification for nuclear armament,” he said, adding that there is “anxiety about threats, whether irrational or not.”

At the 2009 Munich Security Conference, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament and a former chief nuclear negotiator, denied the existence of the Holocaust. The German authorities chose not to pursue a criminal complaint against Larijani for violating laws prohibiting the denial of the Shoah.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, in attendance at the Munich conference, told Die Welt, “Iran is governed by an anti-Western, anti-Semitic and exquisitely dangerous regime.” He urged that the Iranian regime be shown as little legitimation as possible at the conference.

AP contributed to this report.    •

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