- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

Iran has been dancing a diplomatic tango over its nuclear negotiation — taking two steps forward for every step back. Diplomats and analysts believe the result is Iran gradually inches toward the ability to develop nuclear weapons.

In negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union three — France, Britain and Germany — the Iranians sent mixed signals. First they seem to indicate they will abide by international requests to curb their nuclear program, only to later renege and then to return again to the negotiating table.

In accepting the proposals of the three European powers, the EU-3, to suspend enriching uranium — needed for producing nuclear weapons — Iran avoids bringing the issue to the U.N. Security Council’s attention.

Recourse to the Security Council would raise the stakes, risking sanctions on Iran, or worse. Once all diplomatic avenues have been exhausted, the council could pave the way for international recourse to a military solution — unlikely, but the threat exists, nevertheless.

For the moment, however, it seems diplomacy still has the upper hand and a crisis has been averted. “We have reached a final agreement with the three European powers,” Hussein Moussavian, secretary of the foreign department of Iran’s Supreme Council for National Security said on Iranian state-run television last Sunday night. The Iranian government has termed “appropriate” a draft IAEA resolution regarding its nuclear program. Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said the resolution does not satisfy all of Iran’s demands but is acceptable under the circumstances.

But will Iran, which so far has played cat-and-mouse with the EU-3 and the IAEA to gain more time, respect the agreements?

David L. Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, does not think so. “I don’t think the Iranians will respect any agreement the United States is not part of,” Mr. Mack told United Press International. “They will run circles around us.”

Mr. Mack, and other observers of Middle Eastern affairs, believe that so long as there is no joint European-U.S. approach on Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranians will play one off against the other. “The uncoordinated good cop, bad cop routine is not working,” Mr. Mack said. One reason is that, other than label Iran part of the “Axis of Evil,” the Bush administration has not very actively addressed the Iran issue.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell sat next to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi at the Sharm el-Sheik conference on Iraq last Nov. 22, instead of engaging his Iranian counterpart in useful dialogue, Mr. Powell reportedly limited himself to “polite dinner conversation.” If true, that is both sad and a lost golden opportunity to initiate diplomacy. The United States and Iran have no formal relations and the Sharm el-Sheik dinner would have been a perfect opportunity for the two top diplomats to begin exchanging ideas.

“The Bush administration is on a collision course with Iran,” Shibley Telhami, University of Maryland professor of political science and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told UPI. Mr. Telhami thinks the current U.S. approach on Iran will not work. The more Iran is pressured, the more the theocratic regime in Tehran is strengthened, he warns.

One country not involved in the negotiations but watching with anticipation and great interest from the sidelines is Israel. Observers say Israel also does not believe Iran will abide by any nuclear agreements. And many believe Israel will not allow that.

One way to better understand the problem’s complexity, and Iran’s reluctance to forgo pursuing nuclear weaponry, is to consider Iran’s perspective, not that it will solve much.

Iran believes nuclear arms will improve its security and therefore probably will not halt its program. “I have no doubt in my mind Iran will continue to seek nuclear capability,” said Mr. Telhami. Iran has taken stock of how easily the United States invaded neighboring Iraq. Iran feels it needs nuclear weapons for its own security. Tehran will pursue the weapons unless offered what Mr. Mack calls a “substantial quid pro quo.” That means concrete reasons for Iranians to believe forgoing nuclear aspirations would leave them better off.

“There are smart people in Iran who think its better to be like Japan than like another North Korea,” said Mr. Mack. Iran could be offered incentives to join the international fold rather than become a pariah state. As Mr. Mack noted, some observers maintain Iran was never accorded full diplomatic acceptance.

But for Iran to see the West negotiating with a single voice, Mr. Mack, Mr. Telhami and others say the United States and Europe must join. Before the U.S. can mend fences with Iran, Mr. Mack says, it should start mending them with Europe.

Only then can the West take a unified stand against nuclear proliferation. A joint “tough diplomatic initiative by the United States, NATO, Europe and Japan,” said Mr. Mack, can offer bigger carrots but also wave bigger sticks.

The alternative would be disastrous for the entire region. Iran, say numerous intelligence reports, has learned from Israel’s 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak and spread its production plants around the country. This would make a successful Israeli raid extremely difficult — and costly.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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