Thursday, April 28, 2005

EU under pressure as Iran lays down gauntlet in nuclear talks

Daniel Dombey in Brussels, Gareth Smyth in Tehran and Harvey,Morris in Jerusalem, Financial Times:
The European Union is facing one of the biggest tests yet of its policy on Iran's nuclear programme, as Tehran increases pressure in negotiations and doubts mount about the unity of the EU itself. READ MORE

Diplomats from both sides meet for talks in London tonight, following warnings by Iran that unless its latest offer is accepted the talks would end. Under that scenario, Iran has said it will resume enriching uranium, a step that could lead to the production of weapons grade material.

Last month Tehran called for "firm guarantees" from Europe over political relations, trade and security but emphasised its demands that it be able to maintain its nuclear activities - which it stresses are peaceful - over the long term. "If there is no agreement and negotiations collapse, there is no choice but to restart the programme," Kamal Kharrazi, foreign minister, said yesterday.

Cyrus Nasseri, Iran's chief negotiator, told the FT that, other than "differences on nitty-gritty and details", it remained for Europe to come down "to making a decision" over whether it wanted negotiations to continue.

EU officials say they want to keep the negotiations - and Iran's agreement to suspend enrichment while they are ongoing - on track until after Iranian presidential elections on June 17. They hope former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - a relatively pragmatic figure - will win. "I hope they will be able to vote and elect a new president that we can deal with," Javier Solana, EU foreign policy representative, said yesterday, hinting at the EU's preference for Mr Rafsanjani.

For their part, the Europeans are demanding "objective guarantees" that Iran's nuclear programme has no military use. But Britain, France and Germany, the so-called EU3 countries that lead the EU talks, have not always appeared to be in step with each other on what these "objective guarantees" may be, and they may yet pull in different directions as the Iranian pressure mounts.

The EU3 has to date insisted that "objective guarantees" means a permanent halt to enrichment and dismantling equipment.

But at a February meeting with Iranian negotiators, Jacques Chirac, French president, indicated he might consider an Iranian proposal that rather than dismantling equipment, the International Atomic Energy Agency would monitor the programme to ensure its peaceful nature. Such a scenario would imply that Iran might not need to stop all enrichment activity - contrary to the official EU line.

French foreign ministry officials and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder rushed to "clarify" Mr Chirac's comments and make clear that the EU position had not changed.

Some European diplomats also suggest the EU3 and Iran could reach a compromise under which Iran would continue its suspension of uranium enrichment for three or five years, while retaining a small number of centrifuges, the crucial mechanism in the enrichment process. Yet this again is far softer than the official EU3 position, which is championed by the UK and supported by the US.