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June 27, 2006

Defying US Deadline, Iran Recalls an EU Stall

by Gareth Porter

Iran's announcement that it will not respond to the formal negotiating offer from the six powers until late August was both an expression of confidence and a bit of payback for European stalling in responding to Iran in 2005.

By refusing to comply with a June 29 deadline, Tehran was communicating to Washington and the three European states (Britain, France, and Germany) that it is not intimidated either by threats of force or plans for economic and diplomatic sanctions. The Iranian timetable also appears to be aimed at showing the Europeans and U.S. that Tehran can play the same game of delaying that it believes the Europeans played in their negotiations with Iran a year ago.

In a speech last Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, "We will study the offer and, God willing, will give our opinion at the end of Mordad." That month of the Iranian calendar ends on Aug. 22, indicating that Iran was delaying its response nearly two months beyond the deadline set by the six powers – the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany.

That brought an expression of impatience from the United States. President George W. Bush immediately responded, "It shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what's a reasonable deal."

A U.S. official told the Associated Press that same day that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had already been on the phone with diplomats from the other five nations that signed on to the offer to Iran and had gotten their agreement to reaffirm their expectation that they would get an answer by the June 29 meeting of the Group of Eight foreign ministers.

The two-month Iranian delay in making a formal response to the offer from the six powers appears to parallel a similar delay by the European three in regard to Iran's 2005 negotiating proposal to them under the November 2004 Paris Agreement.

While it was still maintaining its voluntary suspension of its enrichment activities under that agreement, Iran had presented a proposal to the three states in late March 2005 that offered a number of ways in which Iran's enrichment program could be limited to provide "technical guarantees" that Iran could not use it to produce nuclear weapons.

These included producing only low-enriched uranium, limiting the amount of uranium enriched, converting all low-enriched uranium to fuel rods for use in reactors, so that it could not be further enriched, limiting the number of centrifuges in Natanz for a relatively long period, and giving the International Atomic Energy Agency a permanent presence at all sites for uranium conversion and enrichment.

The proposal was formally presented by Iran at a technical experts' meeting on April 29, 2005. Nearly a month later, on May 25, at an EU3-Iran ministerial meeting in Geneva, Iran asked for a quick formal response from the EU. But the EU ministers would only agree to present their comprehensive package for the implementation of the Paris Agreement by the end of July or early August, more than two months later.

It is almost certainly not a mere coincidence, therefore, that Ahmadinejad's Aug. 22 date for responding to the six powers corresponds to the two-month delay announced by the EU3 at that May 2005 meeting.

That delay was particularly galling to Iranian leaders, because they were convinced that the Europeans were stalling deliberately to await the outcome of Iran's presidential election on June 24.

It was widely known in diplomatic circles that the Europeans and U.S. were hoping that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani would win the election. He had been signaling to Western governments that he would reach an agreement to end all uranium enrichment.

In an interview with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group on May 27, 2005, Rafsanjani's closest adviser, Mohammed Atrianfar, said "Rafsanjani will cooperate with Europeans for stopping uranium enrichment" if elected.

After the strongly conservative Ahmadinejad was elected instead, the EU3 gave Iran a proposal in early August that ignored the previous Iranian proposal completely. It demanded a permanent end to all enrichment and offered no real concessions on Iranian security interests, as had been promised in the Paris Agreement itself.

The circumstantial evidence indicates that EU officials would have preferred to make a proposal that included security guarantees for Iran. In a joint press conference with Rice on July 5, 2005, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy referred to the importance of "finding a package which is credible for Iran" that would deal with "the security of their country." For that, he said, "we shall need the United States and we shall talk with them before proposing the package…."

But Rice was unresponsive to the French plea for a more forthcoming proposal. An EU diplomat later acknowledged in an interview with the International Crisis Group – as revealed in that organization's publication "Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse?" – that the EU knew in advance that its proposal was not responsive to Iran's needs.

The arbitrary two-month Iranian delay clearly suggests a new level of confidence of Iran in its overall position in the confrontation with the Bush administration. Iranian leaders see that the Bush administration has lost domestic political support for its militaristic approach to the Middle East. They also believe the United States understands its vulnerability to Iranian retaliation in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East for any U.S. attack.

Bush's symbolic concession of offering to sit down with Iran for the first time, even conditionally, certainly bolstered the Iranian view that the tough bargaining posture Tehran has pursued over the past year – withdrawing its unilateral concessions on International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring and proceeding with enrichment in response to the U.S. unwillingness to engage in negotiations – has worked.

A central question for Iran in deciding on its substantive response is whether it can count on Russia and China to block U.S. efforts to organize a six-power move for a Security Council resolution paving the way for sanctions against Iran. The Financial Times reported June 18 that two "regime insiders" said Iran would offer "talks without preconditions" – meaning that it would reject a renewed suspension as a condition for negotiations.

One of the premises of that plan, according to FT's sources, was that Russia and China would not go along with a Security Council resolution calling for sanctions in response to Iranian rejection of suspension. One of the sources said, "The leadership can't be sure how Russia and China will react, but are confident they won't reject this outright."

(Inter Press Service)


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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