Saturday, May 28, 2005

Iran’s nuclear program

On a typical day, we have room for perhaps half a dozen foreign stories on our inside pages, plus whatever appears on Page 1. With everything going on in the world, that requires us to look for stories we don’t need to carry.

One such story over the past weeks has been the seemingly endless negotiations between Iran and three European powers — Britain, France and Germany — over the future of Tehran’s nuclear program.

Certainly, this is one of the most critical issues on the foreign policy agenda. If Iran were to become a nuclear power, it would substantially change the balance of power in the region, gravely threaten countries like Israel and Iraq, and encourage other countries to follow the same route.

But at some point, it became a question of, “Wake me up when something happens.”

The wire agencies and some of the most influential newspapers in the country have closely followed every twist and turn in the negotiations.

For days, the wires were full of speculation about what would happen when Iran next met the Europeans in Geneva on Wednesday — a lot of it seemingly written just to try to keep the story alive. The Reuters news agency last Sunday filed a story that began like this:

“TEHRAN (Reuters) — Talks this week between Iran and the European Union will show once and for all whether the two sides can reach agreement on Tehran’s nuclear activities, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said on Sunday.”

The Associated Press also weighed in on Sunday with this lead:

“TEHRAN (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister said Sunday that Europe has more to lose than Tehran if the Western countries ask the U.N. Security Council to take action on its nuclear program.”

Finally, a development

Both agencies were on the story again Monday with the AP starting its story with this lead:

“BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union foreign ministers on Monday urged Iran to compromise at nuclear talks later this week and called on the country to assure the world it is not developing atomic weapons.”

By Tuesday, Reuters saw fit to file the following with an “urgent” label:

“BRUSSELS (Reuters) — Negotiations between Iran and the European Union on the Iranian nuclear program are harder than ever and the chances of averting a breakdown are only 50-50, a senior Iranian negotiator said on Tuesday.”

The AP, meanwhile, took a more poetic approach:

“GENEVA (AP) — After long embracing a diplomatic approach to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, European governments appear to be moving toward turning their carrot into a stick.”

By Wednesday there was a development of sorts, sufficient to be the lead story in Thursday’s New York Times. Reuters led its story like this:

“GENEVA (Reuters) — The European Union and Iran agreed to a two-month breathing space for a deal on the Iranian nuclear program on Wednesday, deferring any immediate referral of Tehran to the U.N. Security Council.”

Having not built up our readers’ anticipation in the first place, we let that pass with a three-paragraph brief. There were other stories we wanted to use that seemed more interesting.

Thursday, though, was different. We woke up to the news that Iran would be permitted to open negotiations on membership in the World Trade Organization, what looked like some kind of enticement for cooperation on the nuclear issue.

We got freelancer John Zarocostas to file the outline of the story from Geneva, where the decision had been announced, and had Washington-based reporter David Sands dig around here for the story behind the story. White House and trade reporters pitched in.

Finally we had some news that had the potential to move the story forward.

• David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is

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