U.S.-European discord over Iran is deepening

Posted in Iran | 13-Dec-04 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iranian technician works at a uranium conversion facility.
WASHINGTON Despite a renewed American effort to repair relations with Europe, a disagreement between the Bush administration and European leaders over how best to persuade Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program has deepened in recent weeks, diplomats on both sides say.

The diplomats said the disagreement focused on what Europeans maintained was the crucial next step in their drive to persuade Iran to move beyond its recently agreed upon voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment activities to the point of abandoning them outright.

Envoys from Britain, France and Germany gained Iran's agreement to suspend a vital part of its nuclear program last month. The accord was later endorsed by the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear monitoring agency.

Both the European and Iranian officials who negotiated the accord said it was voluntary and temporary. Permanent cessation is subject to further talks in which economic and political benefits for Iran are to be discussed.

But in recent interviews, European diplomats said that to gain a permanent cessation, the Bush administration must participate in talks with Iran and signal a willingness to be a part of an eventual final accord involving economic incentives and a discussion of security guarantees for Iran.

"We have a deal with Iran that is not perfect," said a European diplomat. "We have to develop it into a permanent suspension. But we will succeed only if we can provide a lot of carrots. We will not obtain a comprehensive deal on Iran without the United States."

A diplomat from a different European country said the "biggest carrot" that could be offered Iran would be a discussion about an eventual normalization of relations with the United States, including possible guarantees that Iran would not be attacked or subverted.

"It would be very helpful if the United States also embraced this view," the diplomat said of the need for American involvement. But he said that when some Europeans recently raised this issue with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser and secretary of state designate, they failed to convince her.

A senior U.S. official said the administration was "deeply worried" about the entire European approach because it could lull the United States into a false sense of security.

Any such deal, he said, could easily be subverted or circumvented, much as North Korea did after it agreed in 1994 to freeze its production of weapons-grade fuel at one reactor, only to renege on the accord and embark on what the United States charges is a plan to produce weapons-grade fuel at another, clandestine location.

Another senior administration official said there was also no confidence within the administration in the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iran's compliance even with the accord hammered out by the Europeans.

The official said that the Europeans had agreed to excessive limits on the agency's ability to inspect Iran's facilities and that there was the added problem that Iran might pursue weapons programs at facilities that Western experts had been unable to locate or identify.

European diplomats, responding to these criticisms, said that while their deal with Iran was flawed, it represented the best hope for reaching an accord that would be accepted by the rest of the world, particularly Russia and China, two players with economic ties to Iran.

To get American involvement in the next phase of negotiations, European envoys said they told Iran that if it failed to comply with its agreement, they would join with the United States in referring the Iranian issue to the UN Security Council for possible further actions, including economic sanctions.

To some U.S. officials, the European attitude may be well intentioned but also naive and based on a fundamental misreading of Iran's intentions. What is needed, they contend, is a unified willingness to demand action and to threaten sanctions against Iran.

Bush administration officials add that while bombing Iranian nuclear sites or taking other sorts of military action are not being contemplated now, they are not ruled out for the future.

The European-American differences on the issue show few signs of being resolved soon, despite a trip this week by Secretary of State Colin Powell to three European-American meetings and a planned trip to Europe by President Bush after his inauguration in January.

"The Europeans are barking up the wrong tree if they think the U.S. can bring the Iranians to the table to get an agreement on this," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy and an Iran specialist.

"What is needed," he said, "is for the entire international community - the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians and the United States - to tell the Iranians to make a deal on this or face the consequences. Right now, what the Iranians say they want from the United States goes far beyond what the administration would be willing to offer."

The Europeans have begun discussion of an array of economic benefits that would accrue to Iran if it headed toward a full cessation of its suspicious nuclear activities.

Among them, according to the Europeans, would be a reaffirmation of Iran's right to have a peaceful nuclear energy program, including access to nuclear fuel on international markets in return for an agreement to return the fuel once it is used. Iranian access to Western high technology and discussing the establishment of the Middle East, presumably including Israel, as a zone free of all nuclear weapons, are also under consideration.

U.S. officials say, however, they are suspicious of any partial deals that do not encompass an end to Iran's support of insurgents in Iraq and to groups that carry out attacks on Israeli citizens, including Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and militant factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But European diplomats say they are prepared to enter into a discussion of these matters, and also of Iran's repressive practices at home, in what they are describing as "phase two" of their talks with Iran. "Of course, the earlier the United States gets into the talks, the better," said a senior European diplomat, adding that the main incentive to Iran is to end the Western threat of economic and political isolation.