OpinionIran in the World PressNuclear compromise offer to Iran

Nuclear compromise offer to Iran

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The Times: Syria and Iran: what should we now do about them? Relations with Syria took a long step backwards yesterday, after a blast of hostility from its President, Bashar Assad. Those with Iran took maybe a tiny step forward, with Russia joining the US and Europe in trying to find a way to cool its nuclear ambitions. The Times

By Bronwen Maddox

Foreign Editor’s Briefing

SYRIA and Iran: what should we now do about them? Relations with Syria took a long step backwards yesterday, after a blast of hostility from its President, Bashar Assad. Those with Iran took maybe a tiny step forward, with Russia joining the US and Europe in trying to find a way to cool its nuclear ambitions.

It would be an understatement to say that the predicaments of the US and Britain do not help. They are one trigger for the new antagonism from Syria and Iran.

The spectacle of the weakness of the US and British governments gives every incentive to test their hand. It is no coincidence that the challenges thrown down by Tehran and Damascus have coincided with the point of President Bush’s greatest unpopularity at home.

Nor will Tony Blair’s defeat on the terror Bill have been lost on them. It would be self-delusion to think that the feverish introversion of the House of Commons on Wednesday night was not instantly visible in distant capitals, and its implications clear.

Yesterday’s declaration from Assad was a shock — certainly to Lebanon, and with less of a sense of surprise, perhaps, to Britain and the US. Assad launched a verbal assault on Fuad Siniora, the Lebanese Prime Minister, calling the Beirut leadership “slaves” of their masters — meaning the US. The speech was an attempted rebuttal of the international pressure on Syria over the February assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri. The UN commission led by German investigator Detlev Mehlis concluded that senior Syrian officials were almost certainly involved. The UN Security Council demanded that Syria co-operates with an international inquiry into the blast.

The Maehlis report gave Assad an uncomfortable dilemma. If he co-operates with the UN, he undermines his authority; if he doesn’t, he will bring further isolation, or worse, to Syria. His best card is that if he goes, no one is sure who will succeed him, and the alternatives could be even worse. That is a gamble the US might not want to take, given that Iraq’s new Government, sympathetic to Iran, is not what the US envisaged when it went to war.

The choice Assad made was to mouth a token sentence, that he would co-operate with the UN, within a hostile diatribe. The consequences must be more isolation, not only from the US and Europe, but also from members of the UN Security Council. But the new steps in dealing with Iran offer a flicker of hope that the force of international pressure is not irredemably weakened by US problems in Iraq.

The important development is that Russia has joined the US and the so-called “EU3” — Britain, France and Germany — in trying to fashion a deal that Tehran might accept. The new proposal, which these countries have yet to put to Tehran, aims to allow Iran to continue some nuclear work while satisfying the world that its intentions are peaceful. Washington accuses Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civil nuclear programme, which Tehran denies.

The draft offer says that Iran could continue the first steps in preparing nuclear material for power stations, but the crucial work of uranium enrichment would be done in Russia, and the fuel shipped to Iran.

Enrichment is the process of purifying uranium so that it can be used to generate nuclear power. If it is enriched further, it can make nuclear weapons.

This process is the most technically difficult in making weapon-grade material and mastering it is perhaps the greatest barrier to acquiring weapons.

The concession to Iran in this offer is to allow it to continue the “conversion” of uranium ore into gas. This is the step before enrichment, which the West had previously insisted Iran renounce. The deal aims to allow Iran to preserve some face at home in its nuclear work, considered a source of national prestige. However, Western diplomats were sceptical yesterday that the new hardline Government in Iran would accept the deal, after three months of aggressive statements towards Israel and the West. But the important new step, which sharply increases pressure on Iran, is the role of Russia, normally one of Tehran’s closest allies.

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