The development, which emerged after U.S. President George W. Bush's trip to Europe in late February, has provided fresh hope for a breakthrough in a long-standing diplomatic quagmire, diplomats and analysts say.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Muhammad el-Baradei praised the United States on 16 March for backing a European initiative to offer Tehran economic incentives in exchange for Iran permanently freezing its nuclear program. "I have been saying for quite a while that the Iran issue in its totality will not be resolved without full engagement by the United States. What we see right now is very much a step in the right direction," el-Baradei told reporters in London.
Ever since the extent of Iran's clandestine nuclear program became public in 2003, the United States and the EU have used diverging tactics to try to prevent Tehran from acquiring an atomic bomb.
"Iran will never exchange its peaceful nuclear technology for any kind of incentive. It's our national demand to have nuclear technology and nothing is equal to that." -- Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami
The EU tried to entice Iran by dangling economic and political carrots in exchange for giving up uranium enrichment, a process that could produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
Until recently, Washington refused to participate in the European initiative, saying that it rewarded bad behavior, and instead demanded that Tehran be hauled before the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
Observers described the dynamic as an inadvertent game of "good cop-bad cop." But since Washington could not get Iran reported to the Security Council without European consent, and Europe could not offer Iran meaningful economic concessions without American backing, the process devolved into a perpetual logjam.
Iran, for its part, was able to deftly exploit policy differences between Washington and Brussels and avoid freezing its enrichment program, leading many analysts to call for a policy re-think on both sides of the Atlantic.
"They must force Tehran to confront a painful choice: either nuclear weapons or economic health," Kenneth M. Pollack, director of research for the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent article in "Foreign Affairs" on U.S. and allied policy toward Iran. ''In the past, dissension among the United States and its allies allowed Tehran to circumvent this difficult choice," Pollack and Takeyh continued.Breaking The Logjam
In the aftermath of Bush's high-profile trip to Europe, both Washington and Brussels shifted strategies, and their policies appeared to converge. The "bad cop" Americans indicated that they were prepared to back the European diplomatic initiative of offering incentives to Iran. ''I have told our European friends who are handling the negotiations on behalf of the rest of the world that we want to help make sure the process goes forward, and we're looking at ways to help move the process forward," Bush said on 3 March in remarks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that Washington was prepared to allow Iran to purchase civilian aircraft parts from the EU, and withdraw U.S. objections to Tehran joining the World Trade Organization. "The Americans appear to be sensibly reconsidering," a European diplomat familiar with the talks over Iran's nuclear program said on condition of anonymity. "They are realizing that just trying to confront Iran isn't working. It isn't containing Iran's nuclear program," the diplomat added, calling the new U.S. approach "quite useful."
Meanwhile, the "good cop" Europeans toughened and made it clear to Iran that they would back Washington's desire to go to the Security Council if Tehran did not agree to a deal. The foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany -- the so-called "EU Three" who are negotiating on behalf of the European Union -- released a report on 11 March in which they said they wanted "objective guarantees that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.
The report, by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also said Iran must maintain a freeze on uranium enrichment "while long-term arrangements are being negotiated," as well as show "full cooperation" with IAEA nuclear inspectors. If Iran failed to do this, the Europeans would "have no choice but to support referring Iran's nuclear program" to the UN Security Council, as sought by Washington. All Eyes On June IAEA Meeting
Iran has thus far spurned the U.S. and European offers, insisting it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium. Despite being oil rich, Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed solely at generating electricity.
"Iran will never exchange its peaceful nuclear technology for any kind of incentive. It's our national demand to have nuclear technology and nothing is equal to that," Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said in remarks reported by Reuters on 16 March. "Stopping our nuclear activities is out of question and the suspension cannot be forever," Khatami added.
Western diplomats are divided as to whether Iran truly intends to try to develop nuclear weapons regardless of the cost in terms of diplomatic isolation, or whether Tehran's intransigence is, as one European official put it, an attempt "to raise the price" for cooperation.
Iran, however, was unenthusiastic about the offer of concessions. Hussein Musavian, the secretary of the foreign relations committee of the Supreme National Security Council, told the BBC that the American concessions on the table so far are insufficient. The United States, Musavian said, should unblock frozen Iranian assets, lift sanctions, and stop what he called "hostile measures," the BBC reported on 13 March.
Neither the United States nor the Europeans have set a firm deadline for Iran to accept a deal or face the Security Council. "There is a certain patience required in order to achieve a diplomatic objective," Bush said on 16 March. Diplomats and analysts, however, widely expect the matter to come to a head when the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors meets in June to discuss Tehran's nuclear program.
Iran admitted in October 2003 to covering up 18 years of atomic research, including the unreported enriching of uranium in breach of the nonproliferation treaty. Enrichment is allowed under the treaty, but only if it is reported to the IAEA and open to inspections to assure it is for peaceful purposes. The United States immediately pushed for Iran to be referred to the Security Council for potential sanctions.
But after entreaties by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Britain, Iran promised in October 2003 to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment. Iran reneged on the pledge last September, announcing that it had begun converting large quantities of raw uranium into gas to prepare it for enrichment.
With pressure again mounting for Security Council sanctions, Iran agreed to renew the suspension in November and began talks with the EU in December on economic incentives.