New European negotiations over Iran to be scrutinized by a sanction-hungry US

Iranian uranium technicians at the Isfahan enrichment site.

Publish date: September 25, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

The United States will be keeping close tabs on reinvigorated negotiations in Europe this week over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme, as Washington will press hard to develop a list of sanctions against Tehran if diplomacy fails to bring the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment efforts to a halt, diplomats said over the weekend.

European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Javier Solana will have a strengthened mandate from the major powers on the United Nations (UN) Security Council when he meets with Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani for the latest in a series of negotiating sessions.

Iran was meanwhile granted an extension to cease its uranium enrichment programme until the first week of October, a European diplomat said, after Tehran skipped its initial UN Security Council-imposed deadline of August 31st.

The Security Council’s five permanent members, plus Germany and Italy, agreed to give European negotiators more time to convince Tehran to abandon its enrichment programme before the council seeks sanctions under a UN Resolution.

Incentives for Iran now on the table

This week’s talks are aimed at getting Iran to accept a package of economic and diplomatic incentives – including the first direct diplomatic contact with the United States in 27 years – in exchange for suspending the uranium enrichment programme that the West fears is aimed at producing nuclear arms.

Solana was expected to meet with Larijani last week to discuss the deadline extension and the incentives package, but Larijani was unable to attend, diplomats said.

A senior US official suggested the postponement of the negotiations with Larijani could be a sign of differences among factions in Tehran about how to respond to the incentives offered by the Security Council and Germany.

"We may be seeing a great debate in Iran about how to react to the proposal made three months ago by the permanent five countries plus Germany," one official said.

"We understand that Iran is not a monolithic entity – there are lots of voices, there are lots of views being expressed publicly," he said.

Eleventh-hour diplomacy
The negotiations were given a last chance to succeed after the United States, under pressure from Europe and China, backed down on its demand for immediate sanctions against Iran for failing to meet the August 31st deadline to freeze enrichment activities.

The new October deadline was granted during sideline meetings at last week’s UN General Assembly session in New York when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convinced her British, Chinese, French German and Russian counterparts to impose one.

Although the date was not revealed publicly, European officials confirmed in private that it would most likely fall during the first week of October, Agencie France Presse reported.

Iran lightening up on the rhetoric surrounding its uranium programme – but Washington is unconvinced.
European leaders have expressed renewed optimism that the talks will succeed after Iran’s hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, voiced a willingness to suspend enrichment "under fair and just conditions" during his numerous appearances at the General Assembly meeting last week.

Ahmadinejad has claimed several times that his enrichment programme is peaceful and geared toward creating fuel for reactors, the first of which is an $800m, 1,000 megawatt reactor built by Russia in the Iranian port of Bushehr, and Moscow has said it will build Iran at least five more nuclear plants. The Bushehr reactor, meanwhile, is to come on line by early next year.

US President George Bush, though, remains deeply skeptical of the Iranian regime – and Russia’s aid to its supposedly civilian nuclear programme – and is suspicious that the Islamic Republic is using the talks to buy time to put its nuclear efforts on weapons building footing, as demonstrated by remarks he made on Friday.

He was seconded by his aggressive and spirited US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who said: "There is no doubt that Iran for the last three years has used the cover of negotiations to continue to perfect the technical aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle."

Escalating sanctions
Washington, meanwhile, is pursuing its campaign to find agreement among the six for a list of graduating sanctions to build pressure on Iran in the event that diplomacy founders. These sanctions could include travel and financial restrictions for Iranian officials and scientist, as well as a ban in the trade in materials that could be used for Tehran’s nuclear programme, said the diplomats. Freezing Iranian accounts abroad has also been considered.

A meeting of senior diplomats from the six nations on Friday focussed on a first phase of sanctions that would target Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile sectors, according to a diplomat involved in the talks. "The core of the sanctions would affect goods, services and people linked to the ballistic and nuclear sectors," the diplomat said.

But a senior US official said after the meeting that there was still no agreement on even the initial stage of sanctions, and that US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns would continue virtually daily discussions with his five counterparts on the issue in coming days, AFP reported.

Will the United States attack Iran?
Clouding diplomacy is the threat of a US military action strike aginast Iran if all other attempts to halt its nuclear programme fail.

Washington has refused to take the military option out of the diplomatic dialogue since the 2003 invasion of Iraq that followed a similarly tortuous effort to negotiate with Baghdad over its suspected weapons of mass destruction. None have been found in the on-going US occupation of Iraq, however.

Especially disconcerting in hind-sight was the United States assertion that Iraq was seeking to build a nuclear bomb – an assertion that was based on falsified intelligence. With Washington now making similar assertions against Iran with no hard-core intelligence to back its claims, there is the disquieting possibility that Washington could again abandon the UN, as it did when it attacked Iraq, and act against Iran on its own.