Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Clever Footwork in Diplomatic Dance

Bronwen Maddox, Times Online:
THE world’s latest offer to Iran — a clever one — has prompted the most civil response from Tehran in a year. It would be wrong to call it a breakthrough, or to expect one. The best that can be hoped for is to buy time from Tehran: blocks of months, even years, in which it promises to freeze its nuclear ambitions. READ MORE

The countries that have taken it on themselves to talk Tehran down from its provocative goals should regard that perpetual dance as a desirable target. Yesterday’s steps took us closer towards it.

In Tehran on Monday morning, Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, held out a bundle of carrots to tempt Iran back into the realm of diplomacy.

The package was agreed on Friday in Vienna by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia — and Germany, which has been intimately involved in the wrangling since dissidents exposed Iran’s clandestine programme four years ago.

For Iran to receive any of these rewards it would have to suspend the most controversial work, uranium enrichment, which can make fuel for reactors but can also make weapons. Since last summer’s election of a hardline government, it has restarted this work in increasingly antagonistic steps. In devising this package the US and the EU have their eyes on the G8 summit of the world’s most powerful leaders in St Petersburg on July 15. They want to extract Iranian concessions or to show China and Russia that it is unreasonable.

China and Russia have extensive links with Iran’s energy industries and have been protective of Iran, and those interests, in the nuclear talks. But their patience with Tehran has clearly been wearing thin.

The biggest attractions in the new package come from the US. They are:
  • The US may offer to supply Iran with some nuclear technology if it stops enriching uranium. This would represent a significant shift by the US, in accepting that Iran can have a peaceful nuclear programme.
  • The offer by the US of Boeing aircraft parts to repair Iran’s ageing civilian fleet, which has one of the worst records of crashes in the world.
  • The offer of direct US participation in the talks, as Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, announced last week. That would be the first time for decades that the US had dealt directly with Iran.
The other main elements are European. They include:
  • Help with building light water reactors
  • Airbus aircraft
  • Guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel.
Solana also delivered the message that if Tehran failed to comply, it would incur penalties. He withheld the details — including the threat of UN sanctions — in order to preserve the “positive” atmosphere, according to officials.

Extensive trade links between Iran and many EU countries, including France, Germany and Italy, make heavy economic sanctions unlikely. EU officials have also been keen to emphasise that any penalties would aim to spare ordinary Iranians. But sanctions targeted at the energy or financial sectors are possible.

Solana was backed up by Sam Bodman, the US Energy Secretary, who said yesterday that the world could handle any loss of Iranian exports “for a while”. Iran is the world’s fourth-biggest oil exporter, after Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US. It provides 5 per cent of the world’s daily production, but holds 10 per cent of proven reserves. On Sunday Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, said that it could cut oil exports if the US made a “wrong move”.

Yesterday, the price of oil dropped by $1 to below $72 a barrel, compared with the high of more than $75 in April, after Iran called the new proposals “positive”.

Ali Larijani, its top negotiator in the nuclear talks, said that discussions had been constructive and that “the proposals contain positive steps and also some ambiguities”.
The UK perspective.