Europe and the United States are at odds again, this time over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Ahead of a key meeting of the United Nations nuclear watchdog in Vienna this week, the European Union yesterday praised Iran for telling the truth about its nuclear program. But Washington reiterated its stand that Tehran must be held accountable for seeking to build nuclear arms in violation of its agreements.
Washington, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday summed up Washington's differences with Europe over what to do about Iran's nuclear program.
"I wouldn't have gone quite as far," Powell said.
Powell was reacting after the European Union's foreign policy chief said that Iran had been "honest" about its program and should not be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, as the United States wants. Javier Solana spoke in Brussels after meeting with Hassan Rowhani, chief of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.
The public clash of American and EU opinion puts trans-Atlantic divisions over Iran's nuclear program clearly on display ahead of a key meeting in Vienna this week of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Speaking after talks in Washington with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Powell reiterated Washington's belief that a recently leaked IAEA report -- which finds that Iran is not building nuclear weapons -- is impossible to believe. He told reporters at the State Department that the world must "remain vigilant" about Iran's nuclear program:
"The Iranians have provided us a great deal of information. It confirms what the United States has been saying for some time, in which we believe, that the Iranian nuclear development program was for more than just the production of power, that it had an intent to produce a nuclear weapon. And I think that the information that has come forward establishes that," Powell said.
But Germany, France, and Britain are taking the diplomatic lead in the Iran nuclear issue, and they hope to solve it through engaging Tehran. Speaking to reporters along with Powell yesterday, Fischer said: "It is very important that we are moving forward based on realism and realism must be based on transparency and these are the basic principles of the agreement the three of us -- the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, and myself -- reached with the Iranian side in Tehran."
Ahead of the 20 November IAEA meeting, diplomats say that France, Britain, and Germany have circulated a draft resolution for the agency's board to adopt that does not meet American demands. It fails to mention the Security Council or Iranian noncompliance.
But analysts say that while Washington will continue to put rhetorical pressure on Iran, an Iraq-focused United States is content to let the EU drive the Iran nuclear issue and willing to compromise -- for now. Patrick Clawson is with the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
"Because of the focus on Iraq, it is likely that the priority of the Bush administration toward Iran's nuclear program will be to delay the matter -- to delay Iran's nuclear program as effectively as possible; to slow it down; to do anything possible to throw more light on what Iran is doing and to slow down Iran's acquisition of dangerous technologies. Delay has the further advantage that if it can be carried out long enough, there is some hope that Iran could change its policies," Clawson said.
Clawson, who was speaking along with a group of analysts at the American Enterprise Institute, added that while Washington delays the Iranian nuclear program, Washington is likely to continue making vague statements about "consequences" should Iran not live up to its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
A senior State Department official, who asked not to be named, said Iran has been out of compliance with the treaty for 18 years and that "needs to be a part of the equation as we go forward." He added that while few IAEA board members favor punitive action now, they could change their minds eventually if Iran is found to be reneging on its promises sometime "down the road."
Despite the sharp differences of approach between Washington and the EU over Iran, Clawson sees a compromise coming out of the meeting. "At the IAEA board of governors meeting on 20 November, the U.S. is going to press hard to see the matter referred to the Security Council on the principle that the Iranians really don't want it, therefore we do. I strongly suspect that's not going to happen but that some compromise may be worked out to simply inform the Security Council. And then we will also probably resume talking to Iran," Clawson said.
And in the meantime, Iran will also probably open the door to further cooperation with the IAEA, says analyst Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center:
"My guess is that in the short-run, the Iranian government will play for time and therefore will be quite cooperative with the IAEA and limit the possibility that the United States can make the case that this issue should be taken to the UN Security Council, because I think the last thing the Iranians want is for this to go to the Security Council, where there would either be a vote of censure or, in extremis, some form of sanctions," Kemp said.
Last month -- after meeting in Tehran with the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, and France -- Iran announced it would suspend uranium enrichment and open its nuclear programs to unfettered IAEA inspections. To get the deal, the Europeans had threatened to suspend trade negotiations.
And that's an increasingly important issue to the Iranians, says Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
"I've had a conversation with [Iran's] representative to the IAEA. And he made it very clear -- as long as it looks as though the United States is pushing Iran around, they'll have no problem having Europe sign up with them. But if it looks as though they've technically violated an international agreement, then they're in trouble. And the reason they're in trouble is they actually want to have good trade relations and better trade relations, with Europe. And they need that trade," Sokolski said.
Iran's announcement on 10 November that it would sign the NPT's Additional Protocol gives the UN the right to conduct more intrusive, short-notice inspections to flush out any secret weapons-related activities.
The protocol may also make it hard for Iran to secretly pursue nuclear arms, although it does not prevent Iran from pursuing fuel-cycle capabilities that could enable Tehran to quickly assemble a nuclear bomb.
Kemp of the Nixon Center says he envisions an eventual compromise in which Iran achieves "full compliance" with the NPT and also agrees to give up the fuel-cycle capability, while retaining a Russian-led project to build nuclear reactors for what it says is electricity:
"It's something I think that could be acceptable certainly to the European Union, since this is the pitch they've been proposing to the Iranians; probably acceptable to the Russians; less acceptable here in Washington; but better than nothing given the complications of the region and other priorities the administration has on its hands," Kemp said.
Analyst Reuel Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute told the forum that as Iran moves down the road toward cooperating with the IAEA, a strict verification regime must be developed to ensure that Tehran complies. But because he doesn't see a serious threat of consequences now for possible Iranian noncompliance, Tehran's chances of eventually acquiring the nuclear bomb are pretty good.
Gerecht added that he believes support for nuclear weapons in Iran is fairly widespread across the political spectrum: "One of the things they actually don't have a debate about is that nukes are good. The debate that is going on right now is, can they have nukes and get away with that, without getting into trouble? Can they have nukes and not get hit by the United States with a preemptive military strike? Can they have nukes without the Europeans rising in indignant anger and actually engaging in some kind of serious sanctions regime against the system?"
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem yesterday, the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency warned Israeli legislators that Iran's nuclear program threatens Israel's existence. It was the second time in a week that a senior Israeli official expressed such concern.
Last week in Washington, the Israeli defense minister said that unless the international community takes severe action, Iran could reach a "breakthrough" in its nuclear program.
In 1981, Israel launched an air strike to destroy neighboring Iraq's French-built Osirak nuclear reactor, saying then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was poised to build nuclear arms.
Israel is widely considered to be an undeclared nuclear power. Unlike Iran, it has not signed the NPT.