Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"Iran Must Send Different Signals"

The EU and Iran want to reopen talks in January over Teheran's nuclear program. DW-WORLD spoke to German arms expert Oliver Meier about the chances of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.

Oliver Meier works at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg and is an international representative and correspondent of the Arms Control Association in Berlin.

Mr. Meier, how would you judge Iran's nuclear program? READ MORE

The Iranian nuclear program has sparked considerable suspicion internationally. For one, because of the scale of its activities. If the nuclear program is implemented the way Iran plans, then it could quickly be misused militarily. That means Iran could then very swiftly move from civilian use to the building of a nuclear bomb. A further reason for mistrust is that Iran has for years concealed important activities from the International Nuclear Energy watchdog and only after much prodding has it revealed its program. Several important questions are still open.

Do you suspect that Iran also has hidden intentions of producing nuclear weapons?

That's difficult to gauge. There are indications, but no proof. Iran still refuses to answer some important questions, which does give rise to the suspicion that it's not just civilian aims that are being pursued here. It's also possible that even in Iran there are differing views on the question -- that maybe they want to create the possibility of making nuclear weapons, but still haven't made a concrete decision on whether they should chase such a goal.

Could Iran secretly be pursuing a uranium enrichment program?

There's no proof for that. And the uranium enrichment plants that Iran has revealed are currently subject to international controls and have been shut down. In light of that, we have to assume that such activities don't exist. There are always new accusations, particularly from the US, that uranium-enrichment activities are secretly taking place in Iran. The question thus is how Iran can regain international trust in the fact that it actually is only interested in tapping energy with its program. The Europeans say: the right solution is for Iran to completely renounce uranium enrichment. The Europeans are also prepared to find ways for reliably suppling Iran with enriched uranium to power civilian nuclear facilities.

Iran has decided to restart uranium conversion. What does that mean?

Iran has started uranium conversion. That's a precursor to enrichment. The product that's created can't be used militarily. But here Iran, some say in a piecemeal way, has taken a further step towards enrichment. Were Iran to restart enrichment, then the talks with the Europeans would break off. That would urgently raise the question of referring Iran to the Security Council.

How would things go on from there?

The US and Europe seem to be in agreement that sanctions shouldn't be immediately imposed. The UN Security Council would definitely try to press Iran to better cooperate, guarantee access to international inspectors and clear open questions. The Security Council would once again support this attempt by the international community and -- this revives memories of Iraq -- try to create further possibilities for inspections.

How do you rate the chances of a diplomatic solution to this escalating nuclear threat?

There are certainly always chances for a solution. But, the question is whether Iran is really interested in such a solution. I think the Europeans are hugely interested and parts of the US too. Iran definitely has to move on the issue. It will have to reverse some of the tough positions that have been formulated since the election of the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for instance, the announcement in early December that Iran would in any case enrich uranium on its own soil. If that really is the case, then the basic fundament of talks with the Europeans has been violated. Here, Iran has to send different signals.

On the other hand, the Europeans too could cede some ground and, for instance, offer more help in civilian areas. And another important question is how the US would react to a diplomatic solution. There's still a lot of ambivalence regarding that. The US must take a clearer stance on the side of the Europeans.

How grave a danger could Iran pose?

For one, it's a combination of Iran possibly equipping itself with nuclear weapons and views that Israel must be wiped off the map. The Israelis have made it clear that they wouldn't sit back and accept such a development. Thus, there's not just a threat of an arms race but also a military conflict. But, there are further scenarios too. Other countries in the region, for example, Saudi Arabia could follow the nuclear weapons lead. That would trigger further arms races. The danger of a military confrontation is rapidly rising and Teheran has to carefully consider if it wants to take a risk or be prepared instead to give up certain things in return for other concessions. For Iran, the issue is also about economic cooperation with the West as a whole. Iran could face very high costs if it continues down its current path.

Interview conducted by Sonja Lindenberg (sp)