Iran Nuclear NewsOn nuclear seesaw, the balance seems to shift to...

On nuclear seesaw, the balance seems to shift to Iran


New York Times: Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is known for overheated, boastful pronouncements. So it was hardly a surprise earlier this month when he declared that despite demands from the United States and other countries that Iran stop enriching uranium, Tehran was pressing ahead and negotiations were out of the question. The New York Times

Published: November 30, 2007

PARIS, Nov. 29 — Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is known for overheated, boastful pronouncements. So it was hardly a surprise earlier this month when he declared that despite demands from the United States and other countries that Iran stop enriching uranium, Tehran was pressing ahead and negotiations were out of the question.

“From our point of view,” he said, “this subject is closed.”

But in this case, Iran’s intransigence is not only real; it also appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, at least for the moment.

Nine months after the United Nations Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on Iran to press it to stop enrichment, and threatened more if it refused, Iran has steadily increased its enrichment of uranium, which can be used to produce electricity or fuel bombs. At the same time, the nations that joined together behind the sanctions are divided.

The foreign ministers from the six nations that backed the sanctions are now facing another decision on Iran, having agreed to pass a new Security Council resolution if there were no signs of progress in negotiations with Tehran by Friday.

But nothing seems to be bending the will of Iran, which is flush with oil revenues. The incentive strategy, led by Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy adviser, has failed to entice Iran to stop enrichment in exchange for economic, political and technological rewards. So has the punishment approach, as Russia and China hold firm to the view that further pressure will only intensify the standoff.

In May, desperate to engage Iran, the six nations offered a brief freeze in further sanctions if Iran freezes its enrichment program at the current level, effectively dropping their demand that Iran stop enrichment altogether. But that “double freeze” proposal barely got Tehran’s attention.

“The chosen strategy of pressure and engagement is not working,” said one senior European official involved in the diplomacy. “As a result, you have a lot of people desperately banging on the door of the Iranians. All of them are coming back empty-handed.”

Last week Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported that while Iran was answering questions about past nuclear activities, it had crossed the threshold of putting into operation 3,000 centrifuges, which enrich uranium. He added that restrictions on inspectors precluded his agency from determining whether Iran’s program was intended to generate power or make weapons.

On Friday, Mr. Solana is to meet in London with Iran’s new nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, before reporting to officials from the six countries. But Mr. Jalili has repeatedly stated that enrichment is not negotiable, and Iran’s official government spokesman says it will not be on the agenda.

Representatives of the six nations — the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany — will meet Saturday in Paris to discuss a new Council resolution. In interviews, officials from those countries expressed a growing consensus that the momentum in their diplomacy had evaporated and that any new resolution would be weak.

“As far as new ideas, I don’t have any new ideas to offer,” Mr. Solana told reporters on Wednesday. Privately, he has told governments that the most they can ever hope for is a cap on Iran’s enrichment program in the future, according to officials involved in the conversations.

The Security Council twice has imposed limited economic and political sanctions aimed at freezing Iranian assets linked to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Although there is considerable debate in Iran on the wisdom of a policy that isolates the country, the sanctions have hardly budged Iran.

Kim Howells, a senior official in the British Foreign Office, told a Parliament committee on Wednesday that the current sanctions were “pretty weak,” adding, “I don’t think the U.N. is going out of its way to cripple Iran in any way.”

Behind the scenes, the impasse has encouraged independent initiatives, complicating the joint diplomacy of the six powers.

Switzerland floated a plan, criticized by the six countries, that would allow Iran to expand its enrichment program but would set limits on how fast.

Russia has recently tried but failed to sway Iran to compromise. During a recent visit to Tehran, President Vladimir V. Putin was granted a rare audience with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Putin made no threats, but focused on the benefits that would flow to Iran, including the delivery of sophisticated nuclear technology, if it made some gesture on enrichment, according to officials familiar with the visit.

Iranian officials described the meeting as very friendly, but when Mr. Putin sent his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, to Tehran, Mr. Lavrov received a frosty reception, and returned home frustrated, Russian, Iranian and European officials said.

Still, Russia prefers to make the next priority not more sanctions but winning Iran’s cooperation on allowing wider inspections of its nuclear sites by the United Nations agency, Russian and Western European officials said.

China, whose trade with Iran is soaring, has taken what might be characterized as a passive-aggressive diplomatic approach.

It did not send a representative to a key meeting of the six powers in Brussels on Monday, causing the meeting to be canceled. The Chinese delegation also refused to attend the previous scheduled meeting of the group, to protest both a meeting Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, held with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, and the decision by the United States Congress to honor him. The Chinese are expected at Saturday’s meeting.

The only negotiation with Iran that seems to be progressing is the limited one aimed at resolving the United Nations agency’s questions about Tehran’s past nuclear activity. Under a formal agreement last summer with the agency, Iran has begun to turn over documents and make various officials and former officials available for interviews.

As long as Iran is making progress on this front, the United States and its European allies are likely to have a difficult time persuading Russia and China to agree to further sanctions.

Instead, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are working to persuade their own companies and banks to limit investments and dealings in Iran. Other countries, including Italy and Spain, have resisted a French proposal to impose new European Union sanctions.

Meanwhile, Dr. ElBaradei, whom Iranian officials have described as a friend, has been criticized in some official quarters in Iran for his recent report, which called on Tehran to abide by Security Council resolutions and faulted it for a “confidence deficit” about the nature of its nuclear program.

Earlier this month, Dr. ElBaradei planned a trip to Iran to expand his inspectors’ access and restart negotiations. Although President Ahmadinejad and other officials agreed to see him, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s top decision-maker, did not, and Dr. ElBaradei called off the trip.

The Iranians argue that once questions about their past are resolved, they cannot be penalized for enriching uranium, because Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

“Enrichment is a right of all countries,” Mohammad Saeidi, the deputy director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said in an interview one week ago. “Once the past ambiguities are resolved, we have every right to do it.”

Perhaps the biggest setback in the recent attempts to negotiate with Iran was the failure of the “double freeze” proposal. Early last May in Brussels, the six powers first presented a visiting Iranian delegation with what they considered the generous offer to temporarily “freeze” all further punitive action in the Security Council if Iran put a temporary “freeze” on expansion of its enrichment program.

Until then, the six countries had taken the position that negotiations could start only if Iran halted enrichment entirely. The proposal, titled “The Way Forward to Negotiations,” included agreement by the six counties to discuss with Iran the timing and methods for uranium enrichment in the future and binding assurances for the supply of nuclear fuel, officials said.

But the Iranians at the table did not even bother to read the document, nor was there ever an official response from Tehran.

Mr. Solana repeated the offer last month during a meeting with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Rome, but it was rejected, officials involved in the talks said.

Even so, the apparent softening of the six powers’ demand on uranium enrichment — however brief — may have helped convince Iran that its policy of defiance was paying off.

“Of course the proposal could be seen as moving our red line,” said one senior official involved in the diplomacy. “But we are diplomats. We have to find a formula for negotiations with Iran.”

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