- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004

The international conference on Iraq that opens tomorrow in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik is very likely to turn into a Middle Eastern diplomatic bazaar, or souk, where participants haggle over political issues in the fine tradition of Levantine merchants.

Though Iraq is the central focus of the two-day meeting in the Egyptian Sinai, other topics du jour — such as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — will undoubtedly surface, too. Twenty countries are expected to take part.

In fact, the Sharm el Sheik venue will offer Secretary of State Colin Powell a rare opportunity to meet his Iranian counterpart and to express — face-to-face, rather than via televised sound bites — Bush administration concerns over Tehran’s nuclear aspirations. Mr. Powell is also likely to meet other Mideast leaders with whom the United States has less-than-cordial relations, such as Syria, whom the U.S. will likely ask to clamp down on cross-border infiltrations by jihadi fighters into Iraq.

As recently as this last weekend, President George W. Bush voiced concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Talking to reporters in Santiago, Chile, where he attended an APEC conference, Mr. Bush said Iran was rushing ahead with plans to produce uranium hexafluoride, a gas that can be turned into bomb fuel with little effort.

Mr. Bush believes Iran was racing ahead with production of hexafluoride before observing a temporary stoppage of fuel production set by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and which comes into effect tomorrow. Iran said it would agree to the moratorium, but stressed its voluntary nature.

The president warned that Iran’s accelerated process “could lead to a nuclear weapon.” It was the second time in a week that the Bush administration placed the spotlight on Iran. Earlier, last Wednesday, Mr. Powell, in a move reminiscent of his U.N. intervention leading up to the war in Iraq, accused Tehran’s mullahs of trying to convert their missile technology — the Shehab III — to enable it to carry nuclear warheads.

Iran’s Shehab III can reach Israel, the U.S. base on the British Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, as well as a number of European cities. Equipped with nuclear warheads, Iran would change the Middle East equation, increasing the already very high tension. British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed last week Iran would not be allowed to become a nuclear power.

One country that will not attend the Sinai summit is Israel, also the least likely to allow Iran to go nuclear. A repeat of the 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility cannot be ruled out.

Washington’s accusations that the Islamic Republic is well on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons potential has frighteningly parallels to those made about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S. invasion. There is one major difference. The weapons most likely exist, or will exist some time in the near future. But this is where all similarities stop.

Washington knows Iran is not Iraq and that a military assault to impose regime change in Tehran, as it in Baghdad, is unrealistic at best. Instead the most likely outcome in Sharm el Sheik is an open forum — or rather a closed one, as most serious political discussions will occur behind closed doors. This is where the countries neighboring Iraq will “trade” offers and counteroffers with Washington, as in any good old Arab souk.

Iran denies the U.S. accusations, saying it is developing nuclear energy only to produce electricity. Both the United States and an exile Iranian opposition group insist Iran is lying. Mr. Powell, last week, put forward “new information,” on Iran’s nuclear program, though he refused to divulge its source.

In fact, Iran has all the reason in the world to seek nuclear armament. As Tehran’s theocratic rulers look around the region, they can identify a number of reasons; near neighbors Pakistan, and India are nuclear-armed.

The Iranians look at some former Soviet republics with whom they share a couple of borders and who might well be nuclear capable. They look at Israel, whom they regard as the greatest regional threat. Even more worrisome, from their perspective, they look at how little it took for the United States to invade neighboring Iraq and realize the importance of becoming a nuclear power, if no reason other than to deter a U.S. attack.

So expect much bargaining between Iran and the United States and Iran and the Europeans. And just as in any bazaar worthy of its name, so too, in Sharm el Sheik, Iran will make offers it likely will not keep. It might promise to freeze its nuclear development program in exchange for certain guarantees in Iraq, or demands that the U.S. and Europe put a freeze on some of the opposition groups operating in those countries. But chances are Iran might well feel it has no option but to follow through with its nuclear program.

Iran’s ayatollahs are quite astute about negotiating their nuclear future. So far, they have managed to play off the United States against Europe, emphasizing trans-Atlantic divides amplified by the war in Iraq. The problem is to convince Tehran it has far more to gain by cooperating with the EU and the United States than by pursuing its nuclear goals.

However, Iran’s nuclear ambitions can only be countered if Europe and the U.S. present a strong and united front and both carrots and sticks. A nuclear-free Iran is in Europe’s interest as much as Washington’s, if not more so. Paris, Berlin and Rome are in Tehran’s nuclear trajectory, well before Washington, if it ever comes to that.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International

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