Los Angeles Times: In the wake of this week’s shaky international agreement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, diplomats and armscontrol specialists agreed on one central point: Achieving similar progress with Iran will be even tougher. Los Angeles Times
By Tyler Marshall and Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writers
WASHINGTON In the wake of this week’s shaky international agreement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, diplomats and armscontrol specialists agreed on one central point: Achieving similar progress with Iran will be even tougher.
North Korea is considered a hermit state whose nuclear threat represents its only leverage on the outside world. But Iran can influence an array of issues central to the Bush administration’s Middle East policy, and by cultivating influential partners such as Russia, China and India, it has managed to build a buffer against U.S. pressure.
Tehran’s influence over well-organized militant groups in the Middle East such as Islamic Jihad gives it the potential to disrupt the U.S.-backed IsraeliPalestinian peace process at an especially sensitive stage. And Iraqi Shiite militants, many of whom are believed to be funded by Iran, already have demonstrated an ability to challenge the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad.
Historical baggage, including America’s backing of the former shah and the prolonged hostage siege at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, deepens the mutual suspicion between the U.S. and Iran. At the same time, powerful sentiments against Iran on Capitol Hill limit the administration’s ability to maneuver, these experts said.
North Korea agreed in principle this week to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for normalized relations with the United States and help with a future civilian nuclear energy program. However, North Korea immediately assailed the Bush administration, saying it would never surrender its weapons without first receiving a light-water nuclear reactor.
“Iran is a much tougher climb diplomatically [than North Korea”>,” said Michael Krepon, a onetime official of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank specializing in arms control.
The growing appetite of fast-growing Asian markets for Iranian oil also acts to counter Western leverage with Tehran by leading key nations to balk at supporting punitive measures.
Over the last four years, 40% of new oil demand globally has stemmed from East Asia, mainly China, said Frank Verrastro, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
U.S. officials pressed forward Wednesday with their effort at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to bring Iran before the U.N. Security Council for breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The Bush administration’s diplomatic effort is aimed at forcing Iran to abandon efforts to produce its own nuclear fuel, a step Tehran insists it needs to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program. The U.S. and many other countries fear Iran wants to use a nuclear energy program to produce weapons.
The diplomatic flurry comes six weeks after Iran ended a freeze of all its nuclear activities and declared it would begin operating a uranium conversion plant at Esfahan. Tehran’s announcement triggered the collapse of negotiations between Iran and three European Union countries, Britain, France and Germany, which were offering economic incentives and security guarantees for Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
In Vienna, Iranian and Western diplomats shuttled from room to room, making their case to members of the IAEA board who were still uncommitted.
The European Union, backed by the United States, has circulated a five-page resolution that would send Iran’s case to the Security Council because of its past failure to disclose its nuclear program, and its refusal to answer key questions from the nuclear agency.
The EU urged in a statement that the Security Council take only gradual steps rather than moving quickly to impose sanctions, a move apparently calculated to broaden the resolution’s appeal.
Amid the diplomatic jostling, there was a sense that events were moving toward a decisive moment when the U.S. and its allies would succeed in reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions or Iran would declare that it was refusing to cooperate any further with the atomic agency.
Iranian officials say that they are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and that they have gone well beyond it by opening their doors to international inspectors. But amid sharpening rhetoric on both sides, Iran’s officials indicated Wednesday that they might stop all voluntary compliance. Deliberations were scheduled to resume today.
For U.S. officials and their allies, Iran’s oil, the lure of its hard currency to pay for development projects and Tehran’s diplomatic skills make the nation a far more formidable diplomatic adversary than North Korea.
Commercial considerations are believed to have played some role in positions taken by Russia and China on Iran. Both countries worked closely with the United States on this week’s agreement with North Korea, but by late Wednesday remained opposed to U.S. efforts on Iran.
China already gets about 15% of its imported oil and natural gas from Iran, and energy specialists predicted that Iran’s economic interests in Asia were certain to grow significantly in the years ahead. Russia, which already has put $800 million in work into a light-water nuclear reactor at Bushehr, could win billions of dollars in additional contracts if Iran follows through with plans to build more nuclear power plants.
“While Iran is cooperating with the IAEA, while it is not enriching uranium and observing a moratorium, while IAEA inspectors are working in the country, it would be counterproductive to report this question to the U.N. Security Council,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov during a speech Tuesday in San Francisco.
China and Russia hold veto power in the Security Council, and any referral by the IAEA without their support would be a largely empty victory, diplomats and analysts believe.
Representatives of many nonaligned countries find themselves torn on the issue. They are uncomfortable with Iran’s refusal to suspend its nuclear program and its refusal to be open about its efforts to obtain uranium enrichment technology. Yet they also fear that the Bush administration’s goal of preventing Iran from producing its own nuclear fuel, a right guaranteed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, might one day be applied to them.
“The NAM [nonaligned movement”> is still formulating its position,” said Rajmah Hussain, the Malaysian diplomat who chairs the organization and is trying to help it reach a unified stand. “But the basic NAM position is against referral.”
Effective Iranian diplomacy has also played a role.
“Iran has worked to curry favor with the Chinese and the Russians for the last 2 1/2 years because they were trying to build political protection at the [IAEA”> board,” said Gary Samore, a former advisor to the National Security Council who is now at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly in New York last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appealed to the concerns of developing countries, casting U.S. opposition to Tehran’s nuclear program as part of a broader attempt to impose a kind of “nuclear apartheid” on the world.
Some analysts believe the message is beginning to echo, especially as U.S. diplomatic pressure on IAEA members intensifies.
“U.S. policy has been to try to scare the rest of the world about Iran, and what we’ve missed is that the rest of the world is more scared of us. We’ve got to get them to be less afraid of us,” said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Marshall reported from Washington and Rubin from Vienna.