Drill to Boost 'Defensive Capabilities' Coincides With Deadline Iran Has Set for West on Nuclear Offer
By CHIP CUMMINSIranian media on Sunday reported Tehran will conduct a large-scale defensive military exercise next month, coinciding with what government officials now say is a deadline for the West to respond to its counteroffer to a nuclear-fuel deal.
The commander of Iran's ground forces, Brig. Gen. Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan, said the drill will be conducted by Iran's army, in conjunction with some units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to improve "defensive capabilities," Press TV, the English-language, state-run media outlet reported.
Iranian officials also have named Turkey as a possible venue to swap the fuel. Iran has separately suggested it would be willing to buy enriched uranium from a third party.
The U.S. and Western allies have dismissed the counterproposals outright. In autumn, negotiators from Iran, the U.S., France, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency hammered out a proposed deal in which Iran would agree to ship out the bulk of its uranium to Russia, where it would be enriched and shipped back for use in a medical-research reactor. But Iranian officials refused to endorse the deal, despite a U.S.-imposed year-end deadline for Tehran to show progress in talks.
An IAEA spokesman declined to comment on the latest Iranian statements.
A European diplomat said that on Monday, the diplomatic year begins with a "review of measures the international community can use to increase its pressure on Iran" to begin serious negotiations.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has said it would push for new sanctions against Iran early this year if Tehran didn't respond positively to the nuclear-fuel deal. Israeli officials, meanwhile, have suggested they would strike militarily if they thought Iran was nearing nuclear-weapons capability.
Mr. Obama has "begun talking to our friends and allies to consider the next step in this process," National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said last week in Honolulu.
The U.S. is expected to push for United Nations-backed sanctions, despite uncertain support from Security Council members Russia and China. Washington is also consulting allies who might be willing to back sanctions outside the U.N., including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Arab support would further isolate Iran from some of its closest trading partners. While Iran and its Arab neighbors along the Persian Gulf have long had testy relations, Tehran depends on Arab Gulf states for significant trade -- in particular on the U.A.E.'s Dubai, a regional re-export hub.
Not all Arab neighbors are onboard with Washington's sanction plans. In a heavily attended security conference in Manama early last month, Bahrain's foreign minister said further Iranian sanctions wouldn't be fair.
"I think the people of Iran have had enough," Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said to delegates, including Mr. Mottaki and top U.S. diplomats and military officials. Bahrain is a staunch American ally, hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Recent Iranian domestic unrest raises fresh challenges for the Obama administration in crafting any new sanctions. Officials must weigh measures that are tough enough to pressure the regime, but not too tough to enflame popular anger and shore up domestic support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The original, IAEA-backed fuel proposal was embraced by Washington because it was seen as a first step in a longer negotiating process over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran says it is pursuing peaceful energy, but many officials in the West suspect it's building weapons. The deal would have removed enough fissile material to delay the manufacture of any weapon for at least a short while.
Mr. Mottaki on Saturday said Iran would go ahead and produce and enrich its own fuel for the medical reactor if Western powers didn't agree either to swap the fuel or to sell it enriched uranium.
The U.S. has rejected any proposal other than the one hammered out with the IAEA.
"The IAEA has a balanced proposal on the table that would fulfill Iran's own request for fuel and has the backing of the international community," Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an emailed statement.
—Elizabeth Williamson and David Crawford contributed to this article. Write to Chip Cummins at email@example.com