Iran on 22 September won a reprieve from intense international pressure over its nuclear program. The step came during the day's session of this week's meeting in Vienna of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Key European countries withdrew their proposal which had called for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. Britain, France, and Germany -- the so-called EU-3, who have been negotiating with Iran on behalf of the EU -- presented a softer version of their proposal for approval. The new version reportedly accuses Iran of "various failures and breaches" of its obligations to the IAEA. But it stops short of calling for Iran's case to be sent to the Security Council -- for now.
Prague, 22 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The current session of the IAEA's board of governors had been advertised as the moment of truth for Iran, which continues to defy the international community over its nuclear program.
After the breakdown of EU-Iran talks last month and Tehran's resumption of uranium conversion, the EU acknowledged that its engagement approach had failed and it accepted calls by the United States for tougher action.
The First Draft
EU diplomats drafted a proposal calling on the IAEA's board of governors to condemn Iran and refer it to the UN Security Council. But it appears that in the face of intense opposition from key countries such as Russia and China, the Europeans have now decided to put aside the document and press for yet more diplomacy - at least until the board of governors' next session in November. (See RFE/RL's annotated timeline of the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.)
Patrick Cronin of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL the Europeans had little choice.
"The United States has been obviously eager to refer it to New York, to the UN Security Council for the past three years," Cronin said. "And it's been the EU diplomacy, and the EU-3 diplomacy in particular, that has forestalled that. Here, with the breakdown of an apparent agreement, the Europeans had promised to move forward with a referral. The votes haven't come behind the Europeans and the Americans on this, so they have really no recourse but to delay and buy time."
Cronin said the Europeans and the Americans can use that time to tackle the problem on two fronts. They can continue to pressure China and Russia to relax their opposition to bringing Iran before the Security Council. At the same time, EU negotiators can restart their talks with Iran, in hopes of scoring a breakthrough on the diplomatic front.
"Hopefully, Iran and the Europeans can negotiate some new deal and a restoration of the freeze on even the pre-enrichment steps that Iran has taken," he said. "That may again buy more time and may make even unnecessary the referral to the Security Council."
More Time Needed
On 21 September, when reports first began to filter out of Vienna that the original EU proposal faced opposition, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli acknowledged in Washington that more time might be needed. But he made the case that Iran was slowly painting itself into a corner and would eventually be made accountable.
"I think that as we go forward, obviously, you know, as part of the diplomatic process you're going to have different countries with different positions on different aspects of the issue," Ereli said. "But I think looking at it as a whole, looking at it in the broad sense, Iran is finding itself more and more isolated as a result of its own actions."
But Cronin says it is not all black and white.
All sides in this standoff, he argues, have to balance competing interests, in what he calls a "complex calculus." This makes it possible that diplomacy could win out -- but makes any negotiation all the more difficult.
Cronin says it is not a foregone conclusion that Iran truly wants to develop nuclear weapons. On the one hand, he says - despite what it claims - Tehran does want to retain that option. This gives Iran diplomatic leverage and boosts its regional status.
But he believes the Iranians also know that actually acquiring nuclear weapons could open up new problems, such as encouraging a new regional nuclear arms race. So they try to maintain a balance between these two positions. Above all, he said, the Iranians want the world to respect them.
"Well, I think it wants to restore what it would consider its rightful position as the major regional power, as the heir to the Persian Empire, as a country that deserves a position in the 21st century that it currently doesn't feel it has in international arenas," he said. "And nuclear power would also seem to be a part of that, because a number of countries in the neighborhood have nuclear weapons and nuclear power as well. So, all of these things seem to be their 'right.' And finally, they're obviously interested in deterring a country like the United States -- even while the acquisition of a nuclear weapon would probably only guarantee that the United States would end up having to provide nuclear guarantees to countries in the region. So it's a complex calculus."
Countries like France, Russia, China, and India, on the other hand, are all eager to maintain or build energy ties with Iran. They do not want to ostracize Tehran or impose sanctions that would end up hurting everyone economically. But they are also keen on maintaining regional stability and stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
A complex calculus indeed. The IAEA board of governors meeting is due to continue its deliberations on 23 September.
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