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July 4, 2006

German Official Urges Compromise on Iran Enrichment

by Gareth Porter

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung's suggestion that Iran should be allowed to carry out a limited enrichment program under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has exposed a fundamental crack in the façade of unity among the six countries that have given Iran a proposal aimed at halting all its enrichment activities.

The United States immediately insisted that the German government had told it the story, reported by Reuters on June 28, was "erroneous." However, Bonn never retracted Jung's statement, although it reiterated its support for the proposal to Iran from the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany (P5 + 1).

The proposal offers a number of economic incentives in return for Iranian suspension enrichment and lists possible economic measures against Iran if refuses. It allows a return to enrichment in the indefinite future only with Security Council approval.

The episode highlights the fears of many in Europe that the present refusal by the P5 + 1 to compromise on the enrichment issue will produce the opposite outcome – an unrestrained and unmonitored Iranian enrichment program

In an interview with Reuters last week, Jung was asked if Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium under the scrutiny of the Vienna-based IAEA. He answered, "I think so."

Jung said he understood U.S. reservations about allowing any enrichment activities, but added, "One cannot forbid Iran from doing what other countries in the world are doing in accordance with international law. The key point is whether a step toward nuclear weapons is taken. This cannot happen," Jung said.

Jung said close IAEA oversight could show the world whether Tehran's nuclear program was as peaceful as it says, according to Reuters. "IAEA inspections can provide those assurances through monitoring," he was quoted as saying. "That is not a problem."

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the following day that the German government had been contacted about the interview and had told the United States, "This is an erroneous story."

But German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm neither denied nor renounced Jung's position. Instead he told Reuters that Germany stood behind the June 6 offer to Iran.

Jung's expressed willingness to allow enrichment by Iran nevertheless puts Germany sharply at odds with the George W. Bush administration and its British and French allies, which are determined to demand a complete halt to all Iranian uranium enrichment activities.

It also departs dramatically from the position represented in the formal proposal from the P5 +1 given to the Iranians on June 6.

That proposal, which has not been made public, was based on the premise that IAEA inspections cannot be relied on to indicate whether or not Iran's nuclear program is being used for weapons development. The proposal would not permit any enrichment activities until the six powers themselves are prepared to allow it.

As reported by the New York Times on June 8, the six powers had reached an understanding among themselves that, even if Iran's nuclear program were to be given the IAEA seal of approval, Tehran could not resume enrichment unless the Security Council votes unanimously to permit it.

A senior European official was quoted by the Times as saying, "The package does not say that if the IAEA gives Iran a clean bill of health that it will be the end of the moratorium. It simply means we will reexamine it."

That would deprive the more objective IAEA of any role in judging Iran's good faith and give the United States a veto power over Iran's enrichment program. The Bush administration is well known to have no intention of allowing Iran to have any enrichment under any circumstances.

A European official who asked not to be identified told IPS on June 29 that the Iranians are well aware that the proposal would give the United States a veto power over any Iranian resumption of enrichment.

"The Iranians see it as a trap," the official said. "They would like to discuss the veto power of the United States over the question of confidence-building."

Until Jung's interview, the six countries behind the June 6 proposal to Iran had been careful not to say anything suggesting disagreements until Iran had replied. But it has become increasingly clear in recent weeks that Iran will not accept the P5 + 1 suspension demand.

Jung's call for a compromise indicates a high level of concern in Bonn that the P5 + 1 position on enrichment will create a dangerous diplomatic impasse.

The United States, Britain, and France appear poised to initiate a move for a tough Security Council resolution if Iran does not respond positively to the proposal by mid-July. On June 28, Reuters quoted a Western diplomat as saying that, if Iran does not produce a firm pledge to do so by July 12, the coalition would "dust off a Security Council resolution we had been looking into to make a suspension mandatory."

Both Russia and China have publicly opposed sanctions against Iran. Germany has said it has not ruled out economic sanctions but has never committed itself to that course.

If the six powers fail to negotiate a compromise with Iran in the coming months, Iran may proceed with an enrichment program that would not be constrained either by international agreement or by strict IAEA monitoring.

Iranian officials have offered on several occasions since March 2005 to negotiate an agreement that would limit the number of centrifuges that Iran could use to enrich uranium and place the program under the strictest possible IAEA monitoring. Those proposals were dismissed officially by Britain, France, and Germany.

If Iran were limited by an agreement to the 164 centrifuges currently in use, the U.S. State Department has calculated that it would take a little over 13 years to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

But in April, Iran informed the IAEA that it plans to construct 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz by April 2007. Once Iran masters a 3,000-centrifuge cascade, it would be able to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon within 271 days, according to the U.S. calculations.

Some EU officials, including the Germans, have long believed that the EU3 – France, England, and Germany – would have to eventually agree to a limited enrichment program. Last October, an unnamed European official who had been involved in the negotiations with Iran said in an interview with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, "In the end, we are going to have to move further and put more creative ideas on the table, and a supervised, strictly limited enrichment scheme on Iranian soil may be one of them."

The Bush administration appears bent on maintaining a confrontation with Iran that precludes any compromise on enrichment. But the Jung interview suggests that there will be frantic efforts in the coming weeks by some in the coalition to head off a diplomatic disaster on Iran's nuclear program.

(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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