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Iran Nuke Deal, Rise Of China Are Hot Topics At Munich Conference

  • Brian Whitmore

Journalists watch a live transmission of Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki addressing the Munich Security Conference.

Journalists watch a live transmission of Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki addressing the Munich Security Conference.

MUNICH -- The biggest news at this year’s Munich Security Conference came in the dead of night.

When Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki made a surprise appearance at the annual gathering of international luminaries on February 5, organizers scrambled to reorganize the schedule to give him a forum, adding an impromptu late-night panel that stretched past midnight.

He didn’t waste the opportunity. Taking the stage with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Mottaki announced that a deal for Iran to ship its enriched uranium abroad in exchange for nuclear fuel was imminent.

"Under present conditions, I think we have reached, we are approaching, a final agreement that can be accepted by all parties," he said.

I think we have reached, we are approaching, a final agreement that can be accepted by all parties.
Mottaki also held what he described as a "very good meeting" today with the new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano.

"We discussed and exchanged views on a wide range of issues -- views about the proposal that is on the table," Mottaki said.

For his part, Amano declined to predict any sort of breakthrough, saying only, "Dialogue is continuing; this should be accelerated."

The Rise Of China

In contrast to the recent past, this year’s security conference has been a relatively low-key affair.

There have been no headline-grabbing policy speeches like U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement last year that Washington was ready to “press the reset button” in relations with Russia. There have been no high-stakes showdowns, as in 2003 when then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister, sparred over the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq.

And there certainly have been no “holy cow” moments, like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling speech in 2007 assailing the United States for seeking global hegemony.

China's Yang Jiechi: "Turn down your heating."
Instead, the underlying subtext of this year’s event has been the unmistakable rise of China as a key world power and the shift in the international center of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic region to Asia. That shift was underscored by China making its first-ever official appearance at the event; with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi making the conference’s opening address on February 5.

In a breezy, confident, and often humorous speech, Yang sought to address criticisms of Beijing’s human rights record and what many in the West consider its less-than-enthusiastic approach to combating climate change. Visibly perspiring, Yang said Beijing “takes climate change very seriously,” adding that the conference room was being kept much warmer than homes in China.

“If you want to discuss climate change with me, you had best turn down your central heating,” he said.

'Every Reason To Feel Indignant'

Yang used less levity when addressing the recent decision by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to sell arms to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

"This is obviously a violation of the code of conduct among nations, and this is a violation of the three joint communiques issued between China and the United States," he said. "I think the Chinese people and the government have every reason to feel indignant about this thing."

China and Russia, both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have been consistent opponents of imposing tough sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Yang stressed that the international community needs to recognize that Iran has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, even as it seeks to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"The Iranian nuclear issue -- this issue has entered a crucial stage," Yang said. "The parties concerned should, with the overall and long-term interests in mind, step up diplomatic efforts, stay patient, and adopt a more flexible, pragmatic, and proactive policy."

Hours later, Mottaki announced that he thought a breakthrough was close.

The uranium swap deal was first floated in UN-sanctioned talks last year between Iran and six world powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany -- seeking to negotiate a solution to the nuclear impasse. The international community saw the deal as a way to guarantee that Tehran, which claims that its nuclear program is for strictly peaceful purposes, did not enrich its uranium to a level that would allow it to build a nuclear bomb.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Munich: "Our hand is still reaching out..."
Mottaki’s optimistic comments came just days after Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced in televised comments on February 2 that Tehran was prepared to send its uranium abroad for further enrichment.

'Met Only Emptiness'

Western officials in Munich reacted skeptically to Mottaki’s announcement, however.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Iran’s track record to date has not given the international community confidence that it is ready to make meaningful concessions over its nuclear program.

"Our hand is still reaching out, but so far it has met only emptiness. And unfortunately, I have not seen anything since yesterday that can change that view," Westerwelle said. "If there is really to be a new approach to cooperation, the words coming out of Iran must be followed by concrete action."

Likewise, National Security Adviser James Jones, the highest-ranking member of the U.S. delegation in Munich, warned that Iran must follow its words with actions if it wants to win the confidence of the international community and avoid fresh sanctions.

"The unprecedented degree of international consensus and unity on Iran with regard to its nuclear program demonstrates that Tehran must meet its responsibilities or face stronger sanctions and perhaps even deeper isolation," Jones said. "Hanging in the balance is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and greater proliferation concerns worldwide. I can think of no greater concern at the moment to our collective security."

The conference has featured panel discussions with policy makers and experts discussing themes ranging from energy policy and European security to nuclear disarmament and the Middle East peace process. It wraps up on February 7 with sessions on NATO’s future and the conflict in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report from Prague
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