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THE INDEX — September 9, 2009

Iran is "moving closer" to being able to build a nuclear bomb, U.S. envoy Glyn Davies said to the United Nation's nuclear watchdog agency on Wednesday. Davies told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran, which insists its atomic program is for peaceful purposes, almost or already has enough low-enriched uranium to produce a bomb, which could be enriched to weapons-grade. "We have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear weapons option," Davies told the IAEA's 35-nation governing board. This would be "a dangerous and destabilizing possible break-out capacity," said Davies. Earlier this week, the IAEA reported that it was at a "stalemate" with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program. "Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities or its work on heavy-water related projects as required by the Security Council," agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Monday. While the Iranian nuclear program will be a priority when the UN General Assembly meets later this month, in a recent interview with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, ElBaradei was quoted as saying that “in many ways, I think the [Iranian nuclear] threat has been hyped.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country is willing to cooperate on the "peaceful use" of nuclear energy, and this week handed over new proposals to the major powers working to resolve the dispute over its program. The proposals, which were given to the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, include compromises on security, economic, and nuclear issues, according to Aliasghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA. However, Iran refuses to negotiate on what it sees as its right to develop nuclear technology. The South African Development Community (SADC) called for an end to international sanctions on Zimbabwe as it concluded this week's summit. The regional bloc, whose leaders met for two days in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, noted progress by Zimbabwe's government in implementing the terms of a power-sharing agreement, which was set out last September in the wake of violently disputed election results. It urged the international community to unconditionally lift all sanctions against Zimbabwe, rejecting a proposal by Zimbabwe's prime minister and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to condition their removal upon the results of a special assessment meeting. "Considering the positive evolution of the situation, considering the progress that has been made, we believe it is now high time that the sanctions are lifted," said incoming SADC Chairman and Congolese President Joseph Kabila. This call, explained Deputy President of South Africa Kgalema Motlanthe, "is meant to attract the necessary investment into Zimbabwe so that their economic recovery plan can take effect." However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has countered that it is too soon to remove the sanctions, which are intended to pressure President Robert Mugabe's government to honor its democratic obligations. Doing so now will benefit the very people they were meant to punish, says HRW's Georgette Gagnon: "The levers of power are still very much in the hands of the oppressors.... [Mugabe] has managed to persuade SADC to call for the end to sanctions without making any significant improvement in the human rights situation in Zimbabwe." Before leaving for a trip to Russia, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez suggested that Belarus should form a “union” with his country. “We need to create a new union of republics,” Chavez said. “This will not be a union of Soviet or socialist republics. It will be free republics with their own systems, but united in a union.” Both Belarus and Venezuela are wary of Western influence within their countries. Chavez was in Belarus meeting with his counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, before he was scheduled to meet with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin Thursday. Chavez and the Russian leaders are expected to discuss deals on Russian arms and military vehicles. Venezuela has become a leading buyer of Russian arms, purchasing more than $4 billion worth of Russian weapons since 2005. The talks may also focus on joint plans to develop a large oil field in Venezuela’s Orinoco River region. A number of Russian oil companies plan to work with Petroleos, a Venezuelan national oil company, to develop the site, which could potentially hold 1.2 trillion barrels of crude. South Korean officials are accusing the North of intentionally flooding the southern side of the demilitarized zone, in a deluge that swept away six people on Sunday. “I think the North did it intentionally,” South Korea’s unification minister told the Korea Times. North Korean officials admitted that they had released the water, which amounted to millions of cubic meters from the North’s Hwanggang Dam, but said they did it only to offset rising waters on its side. South Korean officials have demanded an apology, noting there had been no recent heavy rain in the North that would explain such a surge. The current row between the two countries comes after a number of signs of easing tensions between the two countries, which included easing restrictions on cross-border traffic last month.

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