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Iran: EU Expected To Stand Firm On Its Ultimatum To Tehran

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union has given Iran an ultimatum: either Tehran allows UN nuclear weapons inspectors free access to its atomic energy sites, or the bloc will call off trade talks. It was also made clear that a successful conclusion to the trade talks will not be possible without further Iranian cooperation on issues ranging from human rights to the Middle East peace process. Analysts appear convinced the bloc has overcome its divisions on Iraq and will -- if necessary -- make good on the threat.

Prague, 23 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The EU this week indicated it means business when it says the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction is now its foremost global security concern.

The bloc gave Iran until September to sign a UN protocol giving weapons inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities. The ministers said the EU will "review" its willingness to pursue trade liberalization talks with Tehran if International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei does not report progress on the issue by the deadline.

EU foreign ministers also reiterated long-standing demands for Iranian cooperation on issues such as terrorism, missile technology, the Middle East peace process, and human rights. The bloc clearly reasserted the link between progress on those issues and the successful conclusion of trade talks.

Steven Everts, a senior analyst with the London-based Centre for European Reform, says providing full access to UN nuclear inspectors is the "absolute minimum" Iran needs to do to stave off EU retribution: "It's my firm expectation that if Mohammed ElBaradei reports back in September and says, 'I'm getting nowhere with Tehran. They're still not addressing these precise questions on the number of nuclear facilities, and they're not willing to accept these tougher inspections,' then I expect the EU to say that [under] these circumstances, the trade talks cannot continue."

Everts says other questions -- such as missile technology, the country's alleged support of Palestinian militants, or its worsening human rights record -- are comparatively less topical.

EU ministers did not take a clear stance, however, as to what precisely will happen should Iran not comply with the demands by September. Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini -- representing the current EU presidency -- sidestepped requests for clarification.

His French colleague, Dominique de Villepin, said Iran faces a "strategic choice," but added it would not be in the interests of the international community to isolate Iran.

The tough EU position is not a radical departure from the bloc's earlier policy. Attempts to engage Iran "positively" have for years been accompanied by demands similar to the terms being set out now. EU officials have indicated, however, that the link between trade talks and political concerns had been toned down in the past to avoid harming the reformist movement in Iran.

Iran today rejected the EU ultimatum. State-run radio quotes Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi as saying that "imposing preconditions or using threatening language is totally unacceptable."

Fraser Cameron, director of studies at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, says he believes Iran, in the end, will realize the EU means business and will act accordingly to avoid international isolation.

"I get the impression from talking to Iranian [officials] that they think that they can comply with the EU conditions. Obviously, there are disputes going on within Iran at the highest level about the future course of Iranian policy, but I think that the EU and, indeed, the U.S. are now working much closer together on this than they were in the past. And I think the prospect of bringing about some changes -- as a result of the combined pressure -- is reasonably good," Cameron said.

Iranian officials have in recent days indicated the country could sign the additional IAEA protocol. Previously, however, they had linked signing with a demand that the international community drop its embargo on civilian nuclear imports to Iran.

The EU says no conditions are acceptable.

Both Cameron and Everts stress that acting on the ultimatum will not mean the EU supports the use of force against Iran.

Everts says the "crunch time" for the EU has yet to come, indicating divisions could re-emerge as matters escalate. But he notes the robust stance adopted by the EU represents an "encouraging" improvement over what has gone on before.

Everts says that by letting Iran off the hook, the EU would undermine the very multilateral regime of conflict prevention and resolution it says it stands for: "If we don't stand up for these agreements, then what is the role of the EU internationally? We have to support the rules, but, at the same time, we have to be prepared to act tough when the rules are broken. And at the moment, Iran's breaking the rules."

Cameron says he is "absolutely" sure the EU will, if forced, carry through with its threat. He says the occasional breakdown in the preferred EU policy of "positive engagement" is unavoidable if the bloc's common foreign policy is to be credible.

"The EU, I think, has always taken the view that you do not condemn outright any country. We don't use this language [of] rogue states and axes of evil, and we think that a policy of constructive engagement should be carried out wherever possible," he says. "Now, it may be that there are limits to this policy if you get no results but, hitherto, we have taken the view that would have gone for Iran that you're more likely to bring about change by engaging with the country -- critical engagement, it's called -- rather than isolating the country."

Cameron notes the debate about the relative merits of engagement compared with isolation and sanctions is likely to remain an "area of dispute" between the EU and the U.S. He points to the example of Cuba, where he says 40 years of U.S. sanctions have brought no results. A shift to EU-style engagement, he says, could prove much more effective.