Thursday, July 06, 2006

Slow-motion progress in Iran nuclear talks

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

"nuclear iran"--When Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and the European Union’s top diplomat Javier Solana meet today, July 6, it is a foregone conclusion that the two will fall short of the “clear and substantive response” from Iran demanded last week by a meeting of G8 foreign ministers.

The EU's decision to press Iran on their delayed response to the recent international package offered to encourage Tehran off its collusion course with the US misses a crucial point: Larijani doesn’t yet have an answer. Tehran’s Kayhan daily newspaper in a July 5 editorial criticized Iran's "incompetence" for allowing the West to "throw the ball in Iran's court". Iran's counter-strategy, it now appears, is to switch the momentum by pointing out the

package's "ambiguities" and Tehran’s need for further "clarification" on certain points.

On the whole, the diplomatic climate is warming for Iran. The escalating North Korean missile crisis has to some extent shifted global attention away from Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, if China is pressured by the US to go along with a draft Security Council statement condemning Pyongyong's "provocations", it is possible that Beijing could lower its guard on defending Iran to balance strategic interests closer to home. Meanwhile, Tehran has, somewhat provocatively, hailed North Korea's defiant missile test as standing up to US power in Asia.

At the same time, Iran's leader has recently hinted at a new drive toward economic privatization, widely interpreted as a move to facilitate Tehran’s quest to eventually join the World Trade Organization. This alone puts Iran in sharp contrast with North Korea's state-controlled economy and reinforces the possibility that the economic linkages offered as part of the nuclear package may prove decisive, along with the security guarantees, in softening Iran's initial objections to the package.

Iran's refusal to abide by the July 12 deadline could actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the upcoming G8 summit in St Petersburg, Russia, which recently decided to put the Iran nuclear issue on its agenda. That’s one reason why International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammad ElBaradei is now planning to attend the summit.

An outright negative or even partially negative Iranian response would have greatly tested the G8's unity, adding to already fractious US-Russian relations. That’s presumably one reason why the White House's spokesman recently backtracked from the US’s earlier strict July 12 deadline for an Iranian response. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has already backed away from a strict timetable, saying at his latest press conference that there was "no deadline for Iran".

Blair's softening position and Germany's recent refusal to recant a statement by its defense minister in support of Iran’s uranium enrichment program are two important signals that the US's now favored multilateral diplomacy towards Iran has imposed limits on its previous hard-nosed diplomatic tactics.

A recent authoritative article by David Albright in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists states that, "Iran could have its first nuclear weapons in 2009." This assessment represents a sharp contrast to consensus estimates that Iran is at least five, if not 10 years away from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities. According to Albright, Iran is now, "on the verge of mastering a critical step in building and operating a gas centrifuge plant". Still, Albright's hypothetical timeline is based on a yet to be substantiated accusation that Tehran is running a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

In the absence of any hard evidence that Iran's civilian nuclear program is being applied for military purposes, the upper hand still belongs to Russia, China and the Non-Aligned Movement, which has steadfastly opposed the US’s push to impose UN sanctions against Tehran. Moscow’s and Beijing’s occasional prodding of Iran to accept the nuclear package should be viewed more as obligatory diplomacy rather than a softening of their pro-Iran stance inside the UN. Revising up the timeline for when Iran might possess nuclear weapons, baldly based on purely hypothetical assumptions rather than firm empirical evidence, is unlikely to sway international opinion in Washington’s favor.

It is hardly surprising, then, that there is an emerging US ambivalence about bogging the Security Council down in the near future with more unsubstantiated claims about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In fact, Washington has recently been trying to ingratiate itself with the UN community in the wake of US ambassador to the UN John Bolton’s recent flip-flop on an earlier announced UN budget cap, which arguably would have put the UN into serious financial straits. One hopes that the same pragmatism Bolton recently displayed on the UN budget can be duplicated by Washington in its dealings with Iran.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review. He is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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