- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

The United States yesterday dropped a four-year veto on Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, in what U.S. officials called a sign of support for European-led diplomacy to stop Tehran’s drive to develop nuclear bombs.

Iran still faces years of difficult talks to join the 148-nation Geneva-based WTO, but the move was the first tangible concession won by Tehran in its long standoff with Washington over its nuclear programs.

“Today, this house with this decision has done service to itself by correcting a wrong,” Mohammed Reza Alborzi, Iran’s ambassador in Geneva, told WTO delegates.

In difficult talks with European Union powers France, Germany and Britain, Iran on Wednesday agreed to a two-month suspension of sensitive nuclear activities, but the country’s religious rulers insist that Iran has the right to develop nuclear technology for civilian energy uses.

The United States and others accuse Iran of supporting terrorism and secretly attempting to develop nuclear arms. Washington has pushed for U.N. Security Council action if the EU talks break down.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in March first revealed that the United States was willing to drop its veto of Iran’s WTO bid and to consider allowing the export of spare parts for Iran’s largely U.S.-built civilian aircraft.

U.S. officials repeatedly have stressed the moves were meant to support EU diplomacy — not to buy Tehran’s support.

Miss Rice, in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg News, said the U.S. policy change was designed in part to show Iran the United States and Europe were united in demanding an end to the nuclear program.

During a European tour in February shortly after assuming her post, “I was really quite surprised at the intensity of feeling that the United States was somehow not supportive of the negotiations … that we were standing on the sidelines,” she said.

She added, “I think now the Iranians realize that they would be quite isolated if they, in fact, walked out of those talks.”

She said no more concessions were in the pipeline: “Nobody is urging us to do anything more than we’ve done.”

Iran applied for WTO membership in 1996. The trade body’s General Council first considered the application in May 2001, but the United States vetoed the idea at 22 consecutive General Council sessions.

The 25-nation European Union is Iran’s largest trading partner.

Despite U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran economically, EU countries bought $6.6 billion in Iranian goods in 2003 and earlier this week Switzerland became the latest European country to sign a bilateral trade deal with Iran.

“We have supported Iran’s [WTO bid] before, so why not now?” said Carlo Trojan, the European Union’s ambassador to the WTO.

Wolfgang Petritsch, Austria’s ambassador to the WTO and the United Nations in Geneva, said in an interview, “I think it’s better to have [Iran] in the WTO than outside it.”

Countries that have few or no diplomatic ties to the United States, including Cuba, Burma and Congo, are in the WTO. The United States has been able to maintain a near-total economic embargo on Cuba despite Havana’s membership.

Iraq recently was given “observer” status at the WTO, the same level of representation Iran will have now that its application has been accepted.

U.S. officials noted that Iran still is likely to face a long road to full membership, and Washington still has plenty of leverage over the process.

Some 30 countries — including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Sudan — are still negotiating the huge number of bilateral deals needed before final WTO membership is approved. Russia first applied 12 years ago and Algeria has been on the waiting list since 1987.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said WTO membership talks “often last several years and require very complex negotiations.”

“It would again require a consensus before Iran could actually join the WTO as a member,” he added.

John Zarocostas contributed to this report from Geneva.

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