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2/14/06

Iran: Is Russia's Offer Just A Diplomatic Device?

 
Iranian and Russian diplomats were supposed to meet on 16 February to discuss Russia's offer to enrich uranium for Iran, a move that would allay fears that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has now delayed that meeting, but Russia's offer remains on the table. How much, though, would it change? Fariba Mavaddat of RFE/RL's Radio Farda sought an answer from Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

RFE/RL: Regardless of whether the negotiations are going to go ahead on 16 February and regardless of the extent of Iran's bargaining over the expansion of the Russian offer, how likely is it, do you think, to change things in practical terms, because even if the idea of an international consortium to enrich uranium in Russia takes off it will be no more than what already exists in the global nuclear-fuels market. Would it change anything at all?

Mark Fitzpatrick: Well, I think it the basic idea would change things in that, as far as I understand it, it would have been a bilateral deal between Russian and Iran. But I haven't seen the deal. I don't think anyone has actually seen the proposal; I don't think many of the details have even been put to paper. But as it was first proposed it would have been a new development and...a face-saving way out for Iran. Unfortunately it seems Iran is not taking this face-saving way out.

RFE/RL: So is it fair to say that it is still just a diplomatic device rather than a practical way out?

Fitzpatrick: Well, I think it could be a practical way out, although there are so many details that would have to be fleshed out and I think it would take several rounds of negotiations to get into all those details. So, for now, I think it's fair to say it's a diplomatic device. But any major deal would start off at the diplomatic stage and then proceed through the details.

RFE/RL: What do you think it would take Iran to change its course altogether to the satisfaction of the international community, short of suspending for good its nuclear program?

Fitzpatrick: I think if Iran were to suspend [its enrichment program] again temporarily while it discussed the deal with Russia or any other partners in the joint venture, then that would be acceptable. That is fundamentally what happened over the past two and a half years, that Iran accepted a temporary suspension while it negotiated with the Europeans. That came to an end; now there's another potential negotiation on the table. But to proceed with it, Iran would of course have to stop its enrichment work, otherwise there would be no basis for continuing negotiations.

RFE/RL: You mentioned the Russians are now the main partners in negotiations. How does Iran actually view the Russian role in the current crisis? Do they look at Russia as an effective and valuable partner or as a government that turned its back to Iran at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) earlier this month [at which the IAEA, the UN's nuclear watchdog, voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over its concerns about th nature of Iran's nuclear program]?

Fitzpatrick: I think Iran is probably reassessing its relationship with Russia, with China, and maybe other former friends and partners. There are many areas in which Iran and Russia have close and mutually beneficial relations and I think it would be unwise for Iran to conclude that its relationship with Russia has been transformed fundamentally. But on this aspect of its nuclear program there has been a significant transformation, and Iran should realize that, right now, Russia is growing increasingly frustrated with Iran's objectives to proceed with an enrichment program that Russia and China and almost all the rest of the world have called on Iran to stop.

RFE/RL: With that attitude on the part of Iran, is it fair to say that Iran is leading the path towards total isolation?

Fitzpatrick: That certainly seems to be the path that [it is] on and it almost seems as if the current rulers in Tehran either don't care or in fact welcome isolation because it might strengthen their political control if they can persuade the population that they are faced with an external enemy and they all now have to coalesce behind a leader who otherwise does not have such great support.

RFE/RL: How long-term that popular support would be? Because if a nation is put under too much pressure, particularly economically, they could react negatively towards their rulers.

Fitzpatrick: It's very hard for me to judge how the people of Iran would react when put under pressure. In many cases in the past people who were put under great pressure in wars continued to support leaders who later proved to be disasters. So at what point can outside pressure persuade a people that they ought to break with their leaders or at what point does it just persuade the people that they have to hunker down and tough it out? It's a tough decision.

 


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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