Thursday, September 29, 2005

Iran to Play Cards Carefully in Nuclear Dispute

Alistair Lyon, Reuters:
For all its hardline posturing, Iran is likely to play a cautious hand in its drawn-out nuclear game with the West to avoid isolation and to ride out the next attempt to haul it before the U.N. Security Council. Tough talk from Tehran about hitting back for last week's IAEA resolution to recommend sending its case to the council for possible sanctions may remain just that in the short term.

"I'd be surprised if Iran retaliates now," said Jonathan Lindley, of London's Royal United Services Institute.

He said Iran would not want to alienate other nations after the International Atomic Energy Agency's governors voted 22 to 1 with 12 abstentions on a text declaring that it was not complying with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Any move to report the Islamic republic to the Security Council was left until the IAEA governors meets in November, when board rotations are likely to work in Iran's favor.

Iranian reprisals could involve reducing cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, or starting to enrich uranium -- a course diplomats say might provoke Israeli military action.

Tehran has already declared an end to a suspension of enrichment it observed during the negotiations with the EU trio.

Iranian lawmakers are considering a bill that would oblige the government to stop implementing the NPT's Additional Protocol, which allows snap U.N. inspections of nuclear facilities, but the parliamentary debate could last for weeks.

It is unclear how President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will act, with hard calculation, national pride and ideology all part of the equation.

But the president, elected in August on a hardline platform, hinted on Wednesday that diplomacy would be the first recourse.


"The Iranian government will pursue the nation's rights through patience and wisdom," Ahmadinejad said in Qom, the state-run Iran newspaper reported. This, he predicted, would enable Iran to swing more countries behind it at the IAEA.

The United States, which says Iran is seeking atomic weapons under cover of what Tehran insists is a purely civilian nuclear program, had wanted the IAEA to take a tougher line.

It had support from the EU, whose British, French and German negotiators had spent two years trying in vain to persuade Iran to end uranium enrichment activities in return for economic and diplomatic incentives, with skeptical U.S. blessing.

But opposition from Russia and China, which both have big trade interests in Iran, blocked swift referral. Only Venezuela voted against the watered-down resolution. Developing nations, resentful at the NPT's perceived unfairness, mostly abstained.

While a colorful anti-EU protest outside the British embassy in Tehran grabbed headlines on Wednesday, Iran made clear it would not jeopardize huge energy deals with India to punish it for its surprise "yes" vote at the IAEA.

Neither Iran nor its opponents, led by the United States and the European Union, emerged clear winners from the vote.

"The biggest loser is Iran because there has finally been a finding that they are in non-compliance and that changes the equation enormously...They are now considered violators and no longer a member of the club," said Henry Sokolski, head of Washington's Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center.


Against that, Iran can point to splits on the IAEA board.

"From Iran's point of view, the consensus at the IAEA was broken. It's an important victory for them," said Gary Samore, of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, predicting deadlock in November unless Russia drops its opposition to referral.

Russia, which has always said the IAEA must first prove Iran is trying to build a bomb, may come under pressure at next week's summit with the EU in London to change its stance.

But President Vladimir Putin has already resisted a personal plea to do so from U.S. President George W. Bush.

The IAEA has said only that Iran's fuel cycle activities could be used for a bomb and that unanswered questions remain.

Samore said a strong, united international position could persuade Iran to make a "tactical retreat".

If the Security Council gets Iran's case, it would begin by exhorting Tehran to comply with the NPT. If that failed, it could impose sanctions, ranging from travel restrictions for officials to a total trade embargo meant to choke the country.

"Iran has to be nervous," said Samore. "They are half-way to the Security Council and they risk getting sent all the way." READ MORE

However, high world oil prices and U.S. difficulties in Iraq are boosting Tehran's confidence that it can ride out the storm -- or make life very hard for America if push came to shove.

Asked about possible U.S. military action, Iran's nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told clerics in Qom on Wednesday: "Be assured that America does not dare to attack Iran. By making threats, Americans hope we will commit suicide out of fear.

"America is bogged down as a result of two hurricanes and its failure in Iraq and no longer has the ability to face a hard target like Iran," state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.

(Additional reporting by Paul Hughes and Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, and Lou Charbonneau in Berlin)