WASHINGTON, August 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iran responded today to an international proposal on Tehran's disputed nuclear program by saying it is ready for "serious talks." Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani gave representatives from China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and Switzerland (representing U.S. interests) a written response to an international incentives package at a meeting in Tehran. The proposal is aimed at persuading the Islamic republic to abandon its controversial uranium-enrichment program and other sensitive activities.
Details have not yet emerged of the statement that Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, gave to diplomats. But Mohammad Saidi, a top official in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, provided strong hints at the nature of the response.
Saidi said today that the international proposal has "fundamental and serious ambiguities." He added that although suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment is no longer an appropriate precondition, Tehran is willing to hold talks, Mehr News Agency reported. Saidi also criticized aspects of the proposal that emphasize deterrence and ignore nuclear cooperation.
Iran has also rejected the possibility of suspending uranium enrichment, Fars News Agency reported. Iranian officials have been saying the same thing for months. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi gave a strong hint at the Iranian stance in his August 20 press conference, when he said Iran is not considering suspension of its enrichment activities.
Larijani also reiterated that Tehran sees moves to take its case to the UN Security Council as "illegal."
The offer from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Germany was followed in late July by Security Council Resolution 1696, which calls on Iran to halt sensitive nuclear activities by the end of August or face the possibility of economic and political sanctions.
Iran thus finds itself in a position that it has avoided for years through a combination of diplomacy and deception. This situation can be attributed to the hard-line ideology of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration and the support it is receiving from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The hard-line sentiments were strengthened when Ahmadinejad announced on April 11 that Iranians have "enriched uranium to the enrichment level required by nuclear power plants," state television reported.
More recently, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on August 21 that "arrogant powers, led by America," fear Islamic countries' progress and are trying to block Iran's scientific and technological development, state television reported. Therefore, he continued, Iran will continue its nuclear pursuits.
What Was Offered
European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana gave the proposal to Iranian officials in Tehran on June 6. The proposal called on Iran to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities," and "resume implementation of the Additional Protocol [of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)]."
In exchange, the six countries would suspend Security Council talks on the Iranian nuclear program. Moreover, they would back Iran's right to have a peaceful nuclear program that conforms with its NPT obligations. Construction of light-water reactors in Iran, furthermore, would be backed. Future cooperation would include a nuclear cooperation agreement between Iran and Euratom, cooperation on the management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, and assistance in nuclear-related research and development. Other issues included assurances on the provision of nuclear fuel, including enrichment at a joint facility in Russia.
The June proposal mentioned political and economic incentives, too. There would be a regional security conference. Iran would be fully integrated into the international economy -- including membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) -- and there would be a trade and cooperation agreement with the EU. Restrictions would be lifted on the sale of European and U.S. manufactured parts for civilian aircraft. A long-term Iran-EU energy partnership would be created, and restrictions on the use of U.S. telecommunications equipment in Iran might be eliminated. There would be cooperation in the high-technology and agriculture sectors, too.
Where To Now?
If Iran continues its uranium-enrichment activities and does not comply with Resolution 1696, the Security Council could impose commercial or diplomatic sanctions -- per Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. The overseas travel of Iranian officials could be restricted and their assets frozen; there could be restrictions on Iranian sports teams' participation in international competitions; and there could be major economic embargoes.
It is unlikely that there will be much enthusiasm on the Security Council for any serious sanctions. Resistance will come primarily from Moscow and Beijing -- in part due to their geopolitical competition with the United States. China, furthermore, gets much of its energy from Iran. European powers get oil from Iran, and the country is a significant market for European goods.
There is concern that Iran would respond to sanctions by restricting oil exports. Indeed, Iran accounts for some 10 percent of global oil reserves and is OPEC's second-largest producer. Yet Iran is heavily reliant on its oil revenues, which account for 40-50 percent of the state budget and 80-90 percent of total export earnings. Petroleum Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh has dismissed use of the so-called oil weapon, although other officials have mentioned it.
Iranian withdrawal from the NPT is another possible response by Tehran. President Ahmadinejad hinted at this possibility in February, and doing so now would conform to his confrontational foreign policy style. Alaedin Borujerdi, chairman of the legislature's national security and foreign policy committee, said on August 21 that NPT compliance would no longer apply if pressure on Iran continued, IRNA reported.
Military action against the Iranian nuclear program is a remote possibility. Tehran has responded to this risk with a new doctrine of asymmetric warfare. Iran also reportedly has links with Iraqi insurgents who could act against coalition forces. Additionally, Tehran believes U.S. forces are already overstretched with Iraq and Afghanistan and cannot commit to another military confrontation.
Iran also has engaged in saber-rattling, although this may be intended to reassure a domestic audience rather than frighten a foreign one. Iran displayed the new Fajr-3 missile, torpedoes, and other weapons during war games in the Persian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz, and Sea of Oman in late March and early April. These exercises allowed Iran to show its naval forces' area-denial capabilities. Iran is currently holding five-week long military exercises in 16 provinces.
Where Did Things Go Wrong?
The Iranian nuclear program got under way even before the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, and it has taken a long time for it to reach the stage of a UN Security Council resolution.
It was not until August 2002 that an opposition group revealed the existence of a uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy-water plant at Arak; it was not until June 2003 that the IAEA said Iran is not in compliance with the NPT. Yet in the following years, Iran continued to negotiate with Europe and avoid referral to the Security Council.
No international consensus on the gravity of the situation emerged until September 2005, when the IAEA confirmed that Iran had resumed uranium conversion at Isfahan.
The current situation can be attributed to the newfound emphasis on ideology in foreign policy, according to Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani. Rohani is currently the supreme leader's representative on the Supreme National Security Council, and for 16 years he was the council's secretary. In that position, he was Iran's lead nuclear negotiator from October 2003 until his replacement in August 2005.
Rohani said in late July that the country is paying a heavy price at the moment, and he spoke out against critics of the diplomatic process who failed to understand the value of the concessions Iran was receiving from Europe, "Etemad" reported on July 23.
Rohani met with President-elect Ahmadinejad for the first time shortly after the 2005 election. Asked later if there are any differences between the incoming administration and that of President Mohammad Khatami, Rohani conceded that there might be "some differences of opinion" regarding the suspension of uranium enrichment, "Sharq" reported on July 14, 2005. Nobody opposes talks with Europe, he continued, "but there may be some differences of opinion...with some other issues."
In the 2005 interview with "Sharq," Rohani stressed that Iran must avoid worrying other countries and isolating itself. "We have to interact with the world for the sake of our country's development," he said. "If what we envisaged for the next 20 years is to see a developed Iran ranking first in the region from the scientific, technological, and economic aspects, can we achieve this objective without interaction with the industrial world?"
Rohani went on to note the significance of Europe, Russia, Japan, China, and other industrialized states, and he emphasized the importance to Iran of diplomacy and the danger of isolation.
By now, it is obvious that Rohani's advice was ignored, and he is not impressed. Several months ago, Rohani referred to "upstarts that have no experience and track record," "Etemad" reported on June 15.
How the Ahmadinejad team reacts next will color Iran's relations with the world for years to come.
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