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IRAN has been involved in a high stakes game of deception for several years now over its nuclear programme. It has simultaneously engaged in negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) while clandestinely building uranium enrichment facilities. Iran continues to insist its intentions are peaceful while refusing to be transparent about its actions.

Enriched uranium is a critical component for both nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons. The IAEA had been tasked with the responsibility of monitoring and controlling the supply and processing of enriched uranium to ensure nuclear safety as well as prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Iran has, of course, always denied that it has nuclear ambitions but its own actions have been decidedly suspicious.

It continues to process uranium ostensibly for a civilian nuclear power plant but it does not yet have a nuclear power plant and neither is one even under construction. An offer to allow Iran to enrich its uranium in Russia was also rejected. And Teheran has continued to thwart IAEA efforts to fully monitor its uranium enrichment facilities.

The fear, understandably, is that Iran is embarked on a covert programme to acquire nuclear weapons.

A nuclear Iran would destabilise the region and pose a serious threat to our friends in the Middle East. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are all deeply concerned over Iran’s nuclear ambitions though they have not vocalised it for obvious reasons.

Malaysia has walked a tightrope on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme. Both countries have close and cordial relations and work well together in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Bilateral trade and economic cooperation has also grown significantly in recent years.

As well, Malaysia, together with other OIC and Non-Aligned members, has always taken the position that under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has an inalienable right to develop civilian nuclear energy subject, of course, to IAEA safeguards.

Malaysia has also rightly called on nuclear powers to honour their obligations under the NPT to reduce their nuclear arsenals and comply fully with the terms of the treaty. After all, the treaty was never intended to permanently entrench the privileged position of a few nuclear powers.

And then there is the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons. Although Israel neither confirms nor denies that it has nuclear weapons, it is an open secret. The IAEA has never been allowed access to suspected Israeli weapons sites.

Notwithstanding its close relationship with Iran but mindful of its responsibilities as a member of the IAEA Board of Gover-nors, Malaysia has been quietly concerned about Iran’s behaviour on the nuclear file.

In September, our Deputy Foreign Minister, Datuk Lee Chee Leong, told the Iranian Ambassador that Malaysia was against all forms of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. He further added that Malaysia believes all countries with a nuclear programme must subject themselves to the full scope of IAEA safeguards (The Star, Sept 18th).

This was a rare diplomatic rebuke of Iran and mirrored the growing international impatience with Iran’s stonewalling. Even the Russians and the Chinese, who had long shielded Iran from censure, were peeved.

In addition, the highly respected and ever patient Mohammed Al-Baradei, the outgoing IAEA Director-General, best known for the way he stood up to the Bush Administration on Iraq, described his dealings with Iran on the nuclear issue as a “dead end.”

After intense international diplomacy by the United States, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, together with a number of ot-her countries, moved towards a broad consensus in late November to censure Iran over its nuclear programme. Malaysia was urged to join this consensus and was apparently amenable.

The resolution censuring Iran was presented to the IAEA Board of Governors on Nov 27 and was supported by 25 countries. Six countries abstained. Malaysia voted against the resolution together with Venezuela and Cuba.

In the aftermath of the vote, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman ordered home our Permanent Representative to the UN in Vienna who is also our representative to the IAEA.

While Wisma Putra would only say that our ambassador “did not follow proper procedures,” the word is that there was both poor coordination and inadequate consultation between our mission and the ministry as the situation evolved in the days leading up to the vote.

The government is obviously mortified and embarrassed by the whole episode.

The fact that the ambassador’s recall was made public, and since been followed by talk of disciplinary action, also attests to the government’s desire to mollify international concern.

I cannot remember the last time one of our ambassadors was summoned home under similar circumstances. It is indeed a very serious step and reflects the gravity with which the foreign minister views the issue.

The background to this fiasco, and who is ultimately responsible for it, is now the subject of an inquiry at Wisma Putra. Sadly, it is also another reminder that all is not well with our foreign service.

In the meantime, Malaysia must take steps to repair its tarnished international reputation and reassure our friends abroad that we have no intention of supporting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.