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Are we close to an Iranian nuclear deal?

Commentary, 27 September 2006

Iran is close to agreeing to suspend its uranium enrichment programme for a period of three months, provided that this concession remains secret, according to a recent report in the Washington Times.

The outlines of the deal, apparently struck by Mr Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, could pave the way for wider negotiations.

Indications that both Iran and the West are eager to seek peaceful solutions also came from US President George W Bush’s speech before the United Nations General Assembly last week. While praising Iran’s 'vibrant culture' and 'many contributions to civilization', the US President carefully avoided any mention of the long-standing American plan to impose sanctions on the country. Mr Bush pledge to 'work towards a diplomatic solution' hinted at a radical shift from the bellicose noises usually coming out of Washington.

Nevertheless, even if reports of a European-Iranian deal are confirmed, the chances for a peaceful resolution to the current dispute remain slim. For Iran remains determined to become a nuclear power, and the US is just as adamant never to allow this to happen.

In theory, the deal which the EU apparently clinched makes sense. Until now, Iran has refused to accept that it must suspend its uranium enrichment activities as a precondition to any talks. An arrangement by which this enrichment effort (an essential step in the production of nuclear weapons) is halted - in practice if publicly - could avert US threats of sanctions, while preserving Iran’s national pride.

But according to the UN Security Council resolution adopted in early August, the suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme has to be confirmed by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. So, if Iran wishes to keep its concession secret and refuses to admit the IAEA inspectors, it is difficult to see how the US can agree to take part in any negotiations. As State Department spokesman Tom Casey pointed out on Tuesday, if Iran does not stop its nuclear activities 'in a verifiable way', the US will still 'move to sanctions'.

The Europeans evidently hope that, despite this officially unbending position, the US may nevertheless be tempted to talk. After all, no sanctions can be imposed without the agreement of the Russians and Chinese, and this is unlikely to be forthcoming unless Washington makes every effort to exhaust peaceful avenues. Furthermore, the US is keen not to antagonize the Europeans; it cannot, therefore, simply brush aside their suggestions.

And yet, President Bush’s room for manoeuvre is limited.  While some US government officials are apparently prepared to consider the possibility of engaging in a dialogue with Iran, others oppose this as an unnecessary concession. Furthermore, some American military planners argue that accepting to keep secret a 90-day suspension of Iran’s enrichment programme would create major strategic problems for the future. Once the principle is established that Iran can stop or start its nuclear activities without any international inspections, Teheran will effectively gain both the freedom to do as it pleases, and the ability to manipulate public opinion.

For the moment, Washington has not made up its mind whether to accept or reject the current offer. A few more days will have to pass before the details of the alleged European deal become clearer, and a stronger confirmation will have to come from Teheran; Iranian negotiators have often put forward proposals, only to see these repudiated by their superiors.

Either way, a war of media leaks has already been unleashed, as various US officials vie for influence. Last week’s issue of America’s Time weekly reported on the military planning in the Pentagon for a potential strike against Iran, implying that a showdown is inevitable. The New York Times, meanwhile, suggested that the US State Department is planning to conduct a long-term diplomatic game, in the hope that the current Iranian regime will eventually be replaced by 'moderates'. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – always a good indicator of the battle behind the scenes in Washington - expressed on Wednesday his 'conviction' that the US 'remains determined' to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This was a veiled warning to those Americans who may be thinking otherwise.

Yet despite all these diplomatic noises, the fundamentals of the problem have not changed. Iran is unlikely to be tempted by any security guarantee which the US may offer in return for the country giving up its nuclear quest. As the Iranians see it, a nuclear bomb remains the best security guarantee available, and they are determined to get it. Meanwhile, President Bush cannot live with a nuclear Iran: that will undermine the entire American position in the Middle East. 

The two sides may yet sit down for negotiations. However, both will do so in the full knowledge that this merely postpones the ultimate day of reckoning.

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute

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