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    Middle East
     Mar 16, 2005
An offer that can be refused
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

TEHRAN - The Bush administration has offered modest incentives - of Iran's entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and spare parts for its aging airplanes - rejected by Iran as incommensurate with the huge nuclear card. In making this announcement, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear that this decision, reached with the European Three (ie France, Germany and Britain - EU-3) currently holding nuclear talks with Iran, implies that if Iran rejected the offer and insists on resuming its nuclear fuel cycle, then Europe would support the US's bid to take the matter to the United Nations Security Council for further action.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Sunday in a statement that the country was determined to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and "no pressure, bribe or threat" could make Iran give up.

This development is, indeed, troublesome for both Iran-EU relations as well as US-EU ties, notwithstanding the fact that the US continues to insist on Iran's permanent suspension of its uranium enrichment program, whereas the Paris Agreement, signed between Iran and the EU-3 last November, implicitly if not explicitly recognizes Iran's right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce the nuclear fuel necessary for its reactors and, what is more, invites Iran to join a club of nuclear fuel-producing countries.

Thus, no matter how urgent the European desire to heal the trans-Atlantic rift with Washington, vividly demonstrated in President George W Bush's recent charm offensive in European capitals, the fact remains that in agreeing to bandwagon with the US on the next steps toward Iran, Europe has potentially bargained away its diplomacy and, worse, put at risk its carefully-cultivated nuanced approach toward Iran; already, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Dr Hassan Rowhani, has warned that in light of Iran's full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, Iran will immediately cease negotiations with Europe and resume nuclear fuel production if Iran's dossier is sent to the Security Council.

From Iran's vantage point, the US's offer above-mentioned is problematic on several grounds: first, it overlooks that Iran has legitimately exercised its right to acquire peaceful nuclear technology, per Article IV of the NPT, and that to ask Iran to deny itself this right, or part of it, is illegal, from the prism of international law and international regimes such as the NPT. Second, per US intelligence's own admission, reflected in the New York Times on March 10, 2005, there is no reliable information that Iran has embarked on a secret nuclear weapon program, notwithstanding the IAEA's widespread inspection of Iranian civil and military sites and the absence of any evidence corroborating the US's and Israel's allegations that Iran has a clandestine weapons program.

Third, Iran has already committed a huge sum of money, in upwards of US$1 billion, in setting up the nuclear facilities in Tehran, Isfahan, Arak, etc, which the West is now demanding to dismantle in exchange for token rewards. The heavy water reactor alone has cost Iran over $100 million, and per reliable information relayed to the author by one of Iran's top nuclear negotiators, recently the British negotiators in Vienna offered a light water reactor to Iran if it agreed to scrap the heavy water reactor, an offer which had apparently surprised the German and French negotiators.

But, this aside, the US and Europe cannot possibly overlook the role and influence of Iran's national character and collective psyche, which will be badly bruised if Iran bargains away its NPT rights to nuclear technology for such modest incentives. Without doubt, the political backlash inside Iran will be tremendous, and Rowhani and others involved in such a humiliating bargain will be the immediate political casualties, sure to be replaced with more hawkish politicians more apt to emulate North Korea's path - of exiting the NPT and excluding any outside inspection of their nuclear facilities.

On the other hand, Iran cannot afford remaining indifferent to the unique window of opportunity to reach rapprochement with the West via a mutually-satisfactory nuclear negotiation, one that would bring tangible economic as well as security rewards to Iran. To open a parenthesis here, it is worth mentioning that at a recent international conference on nuclear technology held at the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran, former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani made an apt comparison of Iran and Israel (for the first time refraining from using the adjective "Zionist" state and mentioning Israel by name), by stating that the US's rationale for Israel's nuclear weapons in terms of Israel's national security worries, should be "logically extended to other countries". Clearly, Iran is not oblivious to the post-Yasser Arafat developments and is gearing up to make necessary adjustments in its Middle East policy, an important fact conveniently overlooked by the Western media.

What, then, is really important about the US offer is a policy shift, away from regime change and toward dialogue and even rapprochement, discernible in the stated willingness to drop the objections to Iran's membership in the WTO and sale of spare parts for Iran's Boeing airplanes; the latter would almost automatically mean a reconsideration of the US sanctions on Iran, a welcome first step that could, optimistically speaking, pave the way for the future deletion of all sanctions on Iran, which have seriously impacted the Iranian economy so far by chasing away potential foreign investment, particularly in the ailing energy sector.

Consequently, from Iran's vantage point, it is important to keep the totality of the picture in mind, the fact that the present US offer could well turn into the harbinger of more substantial, and meaningful, compromises in the near future, indeed a mini-golden opportunity that should not be dismissed out of hand and studied carefully instead, in the light of the expanding pool of shared or parallel interests between Iran and the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, indeed, the entire region.

Nevertheless, the problem of Iranian suspicion of the US's real intentions is a serious one: is the US making this modest proposal as a symbolic gesture in order to give the appearance of serious negotiation, when in fact it is merely posturing as a prelude for tough actions against Iran down the road? Is the White House serious about steering away from regime change and willing to normalize relations with a regime that Bush recently described in his State of the Union address as the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism? Indeed, the rather schizophrenic US policy toward Iran leaves a lot to be desired and, from Tehran's point of view, is insufficiently reassuring of the US's benevolent intentions.

Tehran's cynical editorials have already put the accent on the US's "cunning manipulation of Europe", that is, as part of a carefully-orchestrated policy to lure Europe from its present course of action toward Iran, causing a growing atrophy in Iran-EU diplomacy and a priori garnering a European commitment to the US's UN sanctions approach "should Iran refuse the offer".

But, hasn't Europe learnt its lessons from the Iraq fiasco? Shouldn't the Europeans maintain a healthy skepticism about the true intentions of the White House, dominated by hawkish neo-conservatives who openly pen about "war to war" and "axis of evil". And why should Europe all of a sudden succumb to forgetfulness vis-a-vis its own Paris Agreement with Iran, which clearly mentions that Iran's suspension of its nuclear fuel program "is not a legal obligation" but rather a "voluntary" confidence-building measure.

In conclusion, the glass of US nuclear diplomacy toward Iran is definitely more than half empty rather than half full, compared with Europe, and it would be a pity, for the sake of Middle East and international peace, if Europe does not pressure the US for greater transparency of its ultimate intentions toward Iran.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran's Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown's Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political science at Tehran University.

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