Iran's 'dance' of nuclear packages

Posted in Iran | 17-Jun-08 | Author: Kaveh L Afrasiabi| Source: Asia Times

EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, left, gestures, as he talks with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 14, 2008.
"Our proposed package and yours contain common points and we are in Tehran today due to these commonalities," Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief visiting Iran as the head of an "Iran Six" delegation to submit the group's latest "incentive package" geared to soliciting Iran's nuclear cooperation, stated at his first press conference in Tehran on Sunday.

Much, then, depends on the ability of both sides to get past divisive issues and expand on these "suitable commonalities" for the sake of what Solana has termed a "win-win" negotiation. (The "Iran Six" consists of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany.)

Conditioning Iran's reply to the "Iran Six" response to Iran's own package of proposals that was submitted to the international community last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in his meeting with Solana avoided any impression of a rushed judgment on the incentive package, promising instead Iran's careful consideration of its content.

In the new package based on one given to Iran in 2006, the "Iran Six" said they were willing to treat Iran's nuclear program in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) once international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program was restored. The package suggested possible cooperation in nuclear energy, for example, technological and financial assistance for Iran's peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who had a rather "disastrous" initial meeting with Solana at a London hotel last November, per Solana's admission, apparently had a more fruitful discussion with Solana this time, reiterating Iran's "strategic" approach reflected in its package that includes assurances about the non-diversion of all countries' nuclear programs, establishment of a consortium in all countries, including Iran, improving the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) supervision on all nuclear activities and nuclear disarmament.

Iran will have a month or so to give an official response to the package and in the event it is negative (ie, with respect to the key demand that Iran suspend its uranium-enrichment activities), then Tehran will likely be confronted with a fourth round of UN sanctions, as well as new unilateral sanctions by the EU, targeting Iran's banking system.

Already, anticipating the EU's next move, Iran has begun to withdraw its assets in European banks, a controversial move that is reportedly opposed by some top officials in the government and, yet, commonly interpreted as an ominous sign of further deterioration in the nuclear crisis.

According to the Tehran daily Kargozaran, "The risk of more serious sanctions and from outside the UN Security Council, particularly sanctioning Iran's banking system, exists."

The European media are awash with reports of a new US-EU common cause against Iran, in light of President George W Bush's week-long trip to Europe, with various EU diplomats warning of a new round of EU sanctions against Iran as early as late July. Italy, too, which has a hard line on Iran's nuclear program, has been lobbying for inclusion in the "Iran Six" diplomacy, apparently receiving a timely nod from Bush.

"We are talking about [uranium] suspension during the duration of negotiations," Solana has told Iran. This raises the possibility of a time-specific suspension, reminiscent of the Iran-EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) October 2003 deal on temporary suspension. This was renewed a year later, in November 2004, with provisions on Iran's implementation of the IAEA's intrusive Additional Protocol inspections and a EU pledge of accepting Iran's right to nuclear energy "without discrimination" within the confines of the NPT, as well as "firm commitments" on nuclear, economic, technological and security cooperation.

From Iran's vantage point, that agreement - the so-called Paris Agreement - unraveled some two years later principally because the Europeans failed to keep their part of the bargain, given the US's opposition that insisted on a permanent suspension. From the outset Iran had insisted that the suspension would be temporary and for "confidence-building" regarding its benign nuclear intentions.

On the other hand, the recent US intelligence report on Iran, the National Intelligence Estimate, confirming that Iran's nuclear program had been peaceful since 2003, is widely considered a major plus for Iran's nuclear diplomacy, particularly since US intelligence has not formally revised that conclusion, irrespective of the White House's insistence that Iran is still engaged in clandestine proliferation.

Nor have the sanctions on Iran been particularly effective, per a new conclusion reportedly reached by some 35 foreign embassies in Tehran, mostly Western, citing a minimum impact on the country's economic conditions and the Iranian public's "attitude".

In its recent report on Iran, American newspaper the Christian Science Monitor quoted an Iranian banker saying that as long as Iran is able to sell its oil and earn its current US$90 billion to $100 billion in oil income, sanctions will fail. Nonetheless, there is serious apprehension, as well as noticeable anxiety, in Tehran about the cumulative effect of sanctions over time, especially if they become more severe in the near or intermediate future.

Consequently, it is no longer uncommon to hear voices counseling new initiatives by Tehran to break away from the "protracted process", to quote Mehdi Sanai, a prominent former Iranian diplomat in his recent interview with a Tehran daily, Hamshahri. According to Sanai, the problem is the US's negative influence on the negotiation process, since the US "has tied the nuclear issue with other issues in Iran's foreign policy".

But, a certain "delinking" of the issues can be discerned in the "Iran Six" incentive package that simply focuses on the nuclear issue and simultaneously invokes the idea of a conference on "regional security". With the US refusing to give Iran any explicit security guarantees and, simultaneously, pursuing a long-term military presence in neighboring Iraq, Iran's approach may be the opposite. That is, discretely pushing for a soft linkage of the two issues, even though this has the side-effect of "securitizing" Iran's civilian nuclear program.

In addition to security interests, other aspects of Iran's national interests are at stake and the issue is whether Iran's resolute insistence on its nuclear "red line" of the right to uranium enrichment leads to "increasing Iran's national power". According to a Tehran political scientist, Mehdi Motaharnia, interviewed by the daily Hamshahri, if this is not the case, then "another approach should be adopted, because with this approach, the proposed packages - before they are opened - instead of opportunity will contain threats."

Needless to say, this view is not shared by every one in Iran and, case in point, the conservative daily Kayhan, which is closely aligned with the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has criticized the incentive package as being "empty again".

Government spokesperson Gholamhossein Elham echoed this sentiment by stating unequivocally that the government will oppose "any preconditions" and that the issue of suspension of enrichment activities is not "debatable".

However, Iran in its own package has pre-committed to the idea of negotiation without preconditions, in the words of Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, in his recent letter to the UN secretary general, stating that Iran "is ready to negotiate with the Five plus One [Iran Six] group within a specific framework on issues of mutual interest."

This brings us to the issue of an international consortium to produce nuclear fuel for Iran, on Iran's soil, as reflected in Iran's package. [1]

In light of the "Iran Six" package's repeated assurances about nuclear assistance to Iran as well as readiness to recognize Iran's nuclear rights in full, the issue of a consortium has now potentially reached the point of a "common denominator" in the dance of nuclear packages between Iran and the international community.

Hypothetically, Iran could in principle agree to a temporary suspension, for example six months, pending earnest negotiations on the status of such a consortium. The incentive package refers vaguely to legally-binding guarantees on nuclear fuel delivery to Iran, which is fine, yet hardly expels the healthy cynicism of the Iranians who have seen European and American companies' abrogation of perfectly legal nuclear contracts in the past. This is the main reason why the "Iran Six" should show good faith in negotiations by opening serious talks on the issue of a consortium. Unless and until this is done, one can expect little if any major or meaningful breakthrough in their talks with Tehran.

1. See Afrasiabi, A nuclear proposal for Iran Agence Global, October 6, 2006.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.