Iran buys some timePARIS - Iran scored a small diplomatic victory on Thursday when the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a relatively mild resolution calling on Tehran to revert to the suspension of all of its nuclear activities, but stopping short of referring the issue to the United Nations Security Council for possible economic sanctions.
The resolution of the 35 members of the governing board of the UN nuclear watchdog was unanimously adopted after three days of difficult bargaining between the European Union's so-called Big Three, or EU-3 - Britain, France and Germany - on the one hand, and the 14 members of the governing board who are part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on the other.
The draft, drawn up by the EU-3 and presented to the board, requested the IAEA's Egyptian general director, Mohammad ElBaradei, "to provide a comprehensive report on the implementation of Iran's NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] Safeguards Agreement and this resolution by September 3."
Iran immediately rejected the move, saying it violated the NPT. "The European Union's resolution is unacceptable and illegal and we reject it," the deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Sa'idi, a senior member of Iran's delegation to the IAEA meeting, told the British news agency Reuters.
The adoption of the draft by full consensus astonished the Iranians, as Tehran was expecting a new round of consultations on Friday and blamed Singapore for "creating divisions" among the NAM group.
"The atmosphere in the IAEA is of surprise and bewilderment, as the Europeans were able to present and adopt a draft that was slightly changed. Experts and observers think that Singapore's change of attitude in breaking away from the NAM and joining the Westerners could be the reason," Mehr news agency, which speaks for the Iranian negotiators, reported from Vienna.
Gregory Schulte, the US ambassador to the IAEA, said the resolution "shows the international community is united in its determination that Iran move off the dangerous course it is on".
The resolution urges Iran to reestablish full suspension of all enrichment-related activities and to permit the director general to reinstate the seals that have been removed at the Isfahan center. Iran this week broke the seals placed by the IAEA and resumed work at the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan. Iran had voluntarily suspended work while negotiating with the EU-3.
Cyrus Nasseri, a senior Iranian negotiator, told reporters after the meeting that Iran would continue working with the agency, but reiterated that it would not bend.
The latest showdown between Tehran and both the IAEA and the EU-3 started 12 days ago after Iran announced suddenly that it would resume activities as the uranium conversion facility situated near the central and historical city of Isfahan in central Iran.
On Monday, Iran started taking off the seals placed on the facility's installations by the IAEA and cheering as technicians fed the first barrels of yellowcake, or raw uranium ore for being conversed in low-grade gas, in the presence of tens of Iranian and foreign journalists and international technicians.
At about the same time, the ruling ayatollahs rejected as "without value and meaningless" a package by the EU-3 offering incentives for nuclear, economic and political cooperation with the Islamic republic. "The offer is an insult to both the government and the people of Iran," Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the country's new president, told the general secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, but adding that Tehran would not leave the negotiation table.
"I have some new initiatives [about the nuclear standoff] that I will disclose when I present my new cabinet [at the weekend]," he told Annan during a telephone conversation.
Both the Europeans and Washington welcomed the declaration, but continued to urge Tehran to go back to suspension of nuclear activities, as agreed in November 2004 in Paris. Washington is concerned that Iran will use its purported civilian nuclear program to make nuclear weapons.
Iran's new, tough attitude towards the EU-3 was drawn up by Ali Larijani, the top strategist on foreign affairs to the new president. He replaced Hasan Rohani as secretary to the Supreme Council on National Security, the body that supervises the country's nuclear affairs. Larijani and his elder brother Ardeshir, also an advisor to the ruling conservatives, have profiting from a string of events giving Iran a solid edge over its European interlocutors: the steady rise in oil prices, the engulfment of the US in Iraq and the weakness of the European Union following the French and Dutch rejection of a proposed European constitution.
Ali Larijani was one of only a handful of candidates allowed to stand in Iran's recent presidential elections. The conservatives-backed candidate, a former head of the state-controlled radio and television, fared poorly behind the top two winners in the first round, who then went into a runoff before Ahmadinejad emerged as the winner.
With oil prices hovering at US$65 a barrel, there is no way the UN Security Council can impose meaningful sanctions on Iran should the IAEA's directors decide to send the nuclear issue to the Security Council. Hence, Iranian officials' repeated statements that they are not afraid of the Security Council.
The presence of more than 150,000 American troops in Iraq makes any plan for attacking Iran highly unlikely, unless saturation bombing of the country is planned and aimed at the destruction of the nation's military installations, and above all its nuclear facilities.
According to US Central Intelligence Agency estimates, there are more than 450 major strategic targets in Iran, including numerous suspected sites producing nuclear weapons. Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option.
"As we are gathered here, one nation that now champions the role of non-aggression and not using arms of mass destruction was the only one that used the terrible atomic weapon, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and wounding millions of others, some of them disabled for their entire life," stated Nasseri at the IAEA meeting of Tuesday, referring to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago by the Americans.
On the domestic front, the nuclear crisis is initially paying off well for Ahmadinejad, an "Islamic-populist" described randomly by the Western media and Iranian pro-reform press and political circles as "ultra-conservative", with ideas taken from orthodox Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad surprised all Iranian and international political analysts when he crushed the influential and powerful Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the second round of the Iranian presidential elections, which most of the defeated runners, except Larijani, said was "massively rigged" because of the huge support he received from the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militias. These forces belong to the new president, a former mayor of Tehran - a job he won with only 12% of the votes.
An austere, simple-living man and faithful Shi'ite Muslim, the uncharismatic, poorly-dressed, peasant-lumpen looking Ahmadinejad, 49, married with three children, is the perfect image of how he once portrayed himself: the "street sweeper" of the people.
Using their good ties with the local and international media, his detractors from left and right did their best to project a negative image of Ahmadinejad, describing him as a "dangerous religious fascist" and insisting on his "complete lack of political experience".
But the resumption of activities at Isfahan has popularized the president since, by standing firm to international pressures, he has relieved the sense of humiliation suffered by the Iranians frustrated by the "gross and inadmissible interferences of the international community, mostly Europe's three-most savage nations", namely Britain, France and Germany, in the words of Ardeshir Larijani.
At the same time, the unfolding confrontation at the IAEA shows that Ahmadinejad, a civil engineer, is the man for the moment, using old Western tactics of "carrot and stick" to ride a crisis. He has left the door open for further negotiation with the EU-3, despite pressure from hardliners in Iran's clerical-led establishment to shut the door and get out of the talks.
Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.