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Analysis: The Iranian Nuclear Imbroglio

Vienna, 8 December 2004 -- A year ago, efforts to rein in Iran's alleged nuclear-weapons program looked like a triumph of multilateral diplomacy. Now they look like a diplomatic quagmire with no end in sight.

Five days of tense negotiations at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wrapped up on 29 November with European diplomats exacerbated, the United States threatening to unilaterally seek UN Security Council sanctions, and many wondering whether Iran is even negotiating in good faith.

The Vienna-based IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog agency, passed a resolution endorsing and agreeing to monitor Iran's suspension of sensitive nuclear activities, part of a deal Tehran signed with the European Union on 14 November to avoid sanctions. But for Western diplomats and officials involved in the negotiations, it was a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Due to Iran's constant threats to cease all cooperation, the accord is riddled with loopholes and falls far short of the ironclad and legally binding guarantees both the United States and the European Union wanted. And just a day after the deal was sealed, with the ink barely dry, Tehran was already threatening to pull out.

Diplomats who once described the agreement as a confidence-building measure to assure the world that Tehran wasn't developing nuclear weapons are now warily talking of a mounting "confidence deficit."

"There is a general unease," a Western diplomat in Vienna close to the negotiations said, describing the mood of the officials involved in talks. "People want to believe, but aren't sure they can.... This whole process is fraught with peril, but we need to see it through."

Ever since serious suspicions about Iran's nuclear program surfaced in February 2003, the United States and the EU have played "good cop-bad cop" with Tehran: the Europeans offered economic and political concessions; the Americans threatened Security Council sanctions.

By October 2003, the process seemed to create a perfect diplomatic storm to contain Iran's nuclear program when Tehran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment -- a process that produces fuel that can be used in nuclear weapons. But Iran reneged on that deal months later, and threatened to pull out of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if the Security Council imposed sanctions -- and months of frustrating cat-and-mouse diplomacy followed.
Iran and the European Union are scheduled to begin negotiations on 15 December on economic and political concessions.

If Iran is determined to pursue nuclear weapons whatever the diplomatic and political cost, there is very little the United States or the rest of the world can do short of a military strike - something could likely further destabilize neighboring Iraq and the Middle East, analysts say.

"They've got us in a corner and we've got them in a corner," said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute specializing in foreign policy and proliferation issues. "I don't see an end to it."

What Is Iran Up To?

At the heart of the unease are fundamental unanswered questions about Tehran's intentions.

Some officials close to the negotiations think the Iranians, who diplomats consider to be master negotiators, are just setting the stage to squeeze as many economic and political concessions out of the Europeans as possible. Others think the real prize is diplomatic recognition from the United States, coupled with guarantees that Washington will not seek "regime change" in Tehran.

Many, however, fear that Tehran is dragging out negotiations as long as possible in order to win time to develop a nuclear weapon.

"Iran may be willing to see if it can be offered enough carrots to give up," the Western diplomat in Vienna said. "Or they could be just playing for time.... We need to make the price so high that Iran doesn't want to make nuclear weapons, or we need to make the benefits so great."

Although oil rich, Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and solely for generating electricity.

Regardless of Iran's intentions, it has a proven ability to enrich uranium and has begun developing an emerging infrastructure that could produce weapons-grade material. Without restrictions, Tehran could be just a few years away from a weapon, analysts say.

"This is a highly risky business and there is no guarantee it will work," a senior official close to the IAEA said, referring to international efforts to entice Iran away from a weapons program.

Iran and the European Union are scheduled to begin negotiations on 15 December on economic and political concessions, ranging from trade deals, possible EU support for Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organization, and transfer of peaceful nuclear technology.

On 30 November, a day after the Vienna talks concluded, Tehran was already issuing threats that they may back out of the agreement yet again if they aren't satisfied with what they received.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, said Tehran's agreement to suspend activities related to uranium enrichment would be temporary.

"We're talking about months, not years," Rohani said. "Negotiations with Europe will be complicated, it won't be easy and will have lots of ups and downs," he added. "If the Europeans do not show honesty, we will leave the talks.''

The EU says the concessions they are offering are contingent on the enrichment suspension being made permanent.

European Carrots, American Sticks

Iran's nuclear program has been under international scrutiny since February 2003, when the IAEA began investigating allegations of a weapons program.

IAEA inspectors soon found traces of weapons-grade uranium at two sites in Iran -- a clear breach of the NPT treaty-- provoking concerns that Tehran has developed the know-how to build a nuclear weapon.

Enriching uranium is allowed under the nonproliferation treaty, as long as it is reported to the IAEA and open to inspections to assure that they are for peaceful purposes. By covering up these activities, Iran led many who had previously given Tehran the benefit of the doubt to suspect they were trying to develop nuclear weapons.

The United States seized on the new findings and demanded that Tehran be formally declared in violation of the nonproliferation treaty and hauled before the Security Council for possible sanctions. But at an IAEA board of governors meeting on 12 September 2003, the nuclear watchdog instead gave Iran a 31 October 2003 deadline to come completely clean about its nuclear activities. The agency's 35-country board also decided to reconvene 20 November 2003 to decide what measures to take.

In an effort to defuse the mounting crisis, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Britain traveled to Tehran and on 21 October 2003 and persuaded Iran to agree to stop enriching uranium and to sign an Additional Protocol to the NPT treaty, which allows for more stringent inspections. The three European states -- which became known as the "EU Three" -- also offered Iran economic concessions if Tehran were to fully with the IAEA.

Two days later, on 23 October 2003 Iran turned over a declaration to the IAEA admitting to 18 years of covert atomic experiments, including the unreported uranium enrichment in violation of the NPT treaty -- although it continued to deny this was for a weapons program.
IAEA inspectors discovered that Iran was in possession of a design and components for an advanced P-2 centrifuge.

At the November 2003 board meeting, the UN nuclear agency endorsed the agreement, and Iran's nuclear ambitions appeared to be contained.

"The international community has laid down a marker that Iran must strictly adhere to its nonproliferation obligations in both letter and spirit through a policy of active cooperation and full transparency," IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei said at the time.

"We are in new territory with respect to Iran's nuclear program," he added. "We now know more about this program, its nature, extent, and development than at any time in the past."

Shortly afterward, IAEA inspectors discovered that Iran was in possession of a design and components for an advanced P-2 centrifuge, which can enrich uranium faster than the older P-1 design Iran was known to possess.

In June, Iran backed out of the deal with the EU and announced it would resume research work on centrifuges. In September, Iran announced that it had begun converting large amounts of uranium gas to prepare it for enrichment.

As pressure again mounted for sanctions, Tehran cut another deal with the EU Three, signed on 14 November, in which it again agreed to suspend uranium enrichment.

But when the IAEA board met from 25-29 November to endorse the accord, Tehran infuriated both Washington and Brussels by demanding an exemption for 20 centrifuges for research purposes. Iran backed down, but demanded -- and won -- key changes in the wording of the IAEA resolution.

Crucially, the resolution describes the enrichment freeze as voluntary, as opposed to the legally binding commitment both the United States and the EU sought. It is the softest of the six resolutions the IAEA's board of governors has passed in the past 15 months concerning Iran.

Iran's President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami called the resolution "a definite defeat for our enemies who wanted to pressure Iran by sending its case to the UN Security Council.''

But diplomats said Washington did not really push hard for a tough resolution because the United States wanted to give the Europeans a chance to negotiate.

In her closing statement, Jackie Sanders, the chief US envoy to the talks, said Washington might now seek UN Security Council sanctions on its own, regardless of what the IAEA board decides in the future.

"The United States reserves all of its options with respect to Security Council consideration of the Iranian nuclear-weapons program," Sanders told delegates.

"Iran has repeatedly demonstrated bad faith, and the United States has long lost any illusions that Iran's ultimate intentions are peaceful."

Diplomats in Vienna said the Europeans are losing patience with Iran, and might now be more open to sending Iran to the Security Council in the future if the deal breaks down.

Brian Whitmore is a Prague-based correspondent for "The Boston Globe."