EU squares up to Iran over nuclear programmeIran was told yesterday to show more openness over its nuclear programme and make better progress on human rights, as the European Union squared up to Tehran over the prospect of closer political and economic ties.
On a visit to Brussels, Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian Foreign Minister, defended his government's record in opening up its nuclear sites, but questioned whether the EU was serious about improving relations with Tehran. The stand-off left efforts to bring Iran in from the cold, through political engagement, finely balanced, underlining the volatility of the region.
Last October, the British, French and German foreign ministers scored a diplomatic coup by visiting Tehran and persuading the Iranians to meet International Atomic Energy Agency demands for tougher inspections of its nuclear facilities. The breakthrough was seen as evidence of effective European diplomacy in the Middle East, defusing tension with one of the nations damned by President George Bush as part of an "axis of evil".
Since then there have been growing doubts about Tehran's commitment to making its nuclear programme transparent, and a setback on human rights issues. While Iran has suspended the enrichment of uranium it has continued to acquire centrifuges, which could be used for that task.
European Union governments have also criticised the management of February's elections, in which as many as 2,000 pro-reform candidates were prevented from standing.
Iran wants to deepen its commercial ties with the EU through a Trade and Co-operation Agreement, which was suspended last year amid mounting suspicions that the Iranians were trying to construct a nuclear bomb.
EU diplomats say that no movement will take place until June at the earliest, and the governments of the UK, France and Germany are likely to play a decisive role in the decision. By that time there will have been a new round of nuclear inspections by the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei. Progress on the deal is being linked to Iran's compliance with nuclear inspections, its human rights record, support for counter-terrorism and role in the Middle East peace process.
In talks yesterday with Mr Kharrazi, Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy representative and the European Commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, both stressed that Iran's relations with Europe depended on more "transparency" on the nuclear issue.
One EU official said: "We have invested in the relationship and we believe that Iran is a very important partner and, frankly, we are a little disappointed with progress on the nuclear issue. The elections were also very disappointing because of the exclusion of so many reformist candidates."
Mr Kharrazi dismissed as "baseless" allegations that Iran was running a secret military programme to develop nuclear weapons, alongside its civilian energy programme, which has been opened to the IAEA. He also denied Iranian opposition reports that the country's Revolutionary Guard was overseeing 400 experts mobilised to develop an atomic bomb. "[The] IAEA has been working with us very closely in different sites and they are continuing their inspections," he said.
Officials described the tone of the discussion as "frank". The minister went on the offensive, arguing: "Both sides have to be serious, to work together on different aspects of their relations, economic, political co-operation and other issues. Otherwise Iran may not be interested to push for that."
Mr Kharrazi called on the EU to play a bigger role in the Middle East peace process, but he was also critical of the US. "What the Americans have been doing in Iraq, the very brutal actions of American soldiers, the systematic plan to torture Iraqis, to kill them, to rape them, is outrageous," he said. "If Americans are in Iraq to promote democracy, is this the way to do it? American policy has created hatred all among Islamic countries, and we are at the stage of developing clashes between different cultures which is very, very dangerous."