Saturday, July 16, 2005

Gloomy EU to press on with Iran initiative

Paul Taylor, Reuters, SwissPolitics:
European Union foreign ministers will agree on Monday to press on with a diplomatic initiative to try to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions despite gloom since the election of an Islamic hard-liner as president. READ MORE

EU diplomats said Britain, France, Germany and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana would brief their colleagues on a package of economic and political incentives they plan to offer Tehran next month if it gives up uranium enrichment activities that could give it the atom bomb.

But the election of ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and growing indications that Iran's pragmatic chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, will be replaced, have made the Europeans increasingly pessimistic.

"There was legitimate skepticism even before the election about whether Iran would ever agree to abandon enrichment, but now it's looking much more difficult," an EU official said.

"Most people still want to proceed and present the comprehensive package in August, once Ahmadinejad takes office, so that Iran has a clear choice between the benefits of cooperation and the risks of isolation," he said.

The so-called EU3 have agreed to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions if it resumes frozen enrichment-related activities, as it has threatened to do.

"It is very, very difficult to see this ending up anywhere but in the Security Council," the official said.

Ahmandinejad has said Tehran will never give up its legal right to enrich nuclear fuel as part of a program it insists is for purely peaceful civilian purposes, but which the West suspects is aimed at developing a weapons capability.


Diplomats said the EU package would include a promise of civilian nuclear cooperation and a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel, a trade and cooperation agreement, regional security cooperation and recognition of Iran as a major energy supplier to Europe.

European Commission officials held an eighth round of trade talks in Tehran this week they said achieved progress on industrial cooperation, energy and intellectual property.

But most experts think the EU cannot offer Iran sufficiently juicy carrots to persuade it to abandon its nuclear ambitions unless the United States is willing to back the deal with an end to its own powerful national economic sanctions.

Washington took a small step to support the Europeans in March when it agreed to stop blocking Iran's bid to negotiate membership of the World Trade Organization and allow it to buy spare parts for its aging fleet of civil aircraft.

But U.S. officials say they see no grounds to reward Iran for choosing a president who is overtly hostile to the West in an electoral process it regards as undemocratic by offering more concessions to make the EU package more attractive.

Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform think-tank, said in a research paper the EU strategy was to "force Iran to choose between nuclear weapons and its relationship with the West."

Ahmadinejad has so far argued that Iran, an oil-producing nation of 65 million which sees itself as a leader of the Muslim and developing world, has no need for closer ties with the West, especially the United States.

But EU officials say aside from public rhetoric they detect no change in Iran's foreign policy yet, partly because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains in overall charge.

Leonard sketched five possible scenarios, ranging from a grand bargain between Iran and the West to a pre-emptive U.S. or Israeli air strike to try to prevent Tehran going nuclear.

"In the end, it may be impossible to avert a nuclear crisis, but Europeans must do all they can to try -- both to avoid the negative consequences of a nuclear Iran and to save the credibility of EU foreign policy and the translatlantic relationship," he said.