Iran impasse

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The Times – Leading articles: Kofi Annan’s meetings with the Iranian leadership this weekend appear to have yielded little progress. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s President, made it plain that, while he was interested in more talks about his country’s evident nuclear ambitions, he would not contemplate any suspension of uranium enrichment in advance of those negotiations. That requirement, however, is the essence of UN Resolution 1696 passed on July 31 and whose deadline expired without compliance last Thursday. The Times

Leading articles

The EU must not allow itself to be divided from Washington

Kofi Annan’s meetings with the Iranian leadership this weekend appear to have yielded little progress. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s President, made it plain that, while he was interested in more talks about his country’s evident nuclear ambitions, he would not contemplate any suspension of uranium enrichment in advance of those negotiations. That requirement, however, is the essence of UN Resolution 1696 passed on July 31 and whose deadline expired without compliance last Thursday. Matters would appear to have reached an impasse. Either Iran’s position changes or the international community will have to alter its stance on this controversy completely.

The second course is a profoundly unattractive option. It would allow the Iranian regime to continue in what is believed to be a quest for nuclear weapons while simultaneously being in discussions as to what it might receive if it abandoned such pretensions. Most if not all of the cards would, therefore, be placed in Mr Ahmadinejad’s hands, which is just where he wants them.

The character of Iranian politics is such that it is never completely clear as to what that nation’s intentions are. It is not obvious whether it is the President or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who is driving policy or if the motives behind it are nationalist or theological in nature. There are reformist and pragmatic elements in Tehran which would prefer to be integrated into the outside world, not isolated from it. It is possible that, having salvaged pride through a period of posturing, Iran might agree to the suspension of uranium enrichment yet find a different name for that decision.

This is, though, the optimistic scenario. Iran may well be determined to acquire a nuclear capacity and wishes instead to play for time to minimise the damage that it sustains in the process. It knows that Russia, its principal supplier of atomic technology over the years, has been extremely reluctant to issue threats to Tehran. Mr Ahmadinejad is a shameless showman. If he can turn this saga into a circus for his own benefit, then that is what he will do.

This circus strategy will work if the EU and the United States can be divided. Their responses to Tehran’s latest stance will have been well received by Iranian hardliners. While George W. Bush asserted that there had to be consequences if Iran continued to ignore the UN, the EU, in the form of Finland, which presently holds its presidency, offered the sense that there was no urgency on this matter. Javier Solana, the EU’s primary negotiator, then restored ballast to policy by insisting that there would only be a two-week delay before the EU, like the US, returns to the UN Security Council.

It is imperative that this delay does not stretch indefinitely and that the basic premise for serious bargaining is not diluted. Iran will be happy to hold talks about talks for as long as anyone else will hold meetings with it. The central question, nevertheless, is not whether Tehran is willing to send out envoys but when uranium enrichment will be suspended. If the EU and Washington are not perceived to be as one, the world will hardly be a safer place.

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