AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 32/2005

Iran's Nuclear Poker Is Nuclear Diplomacy with the Mullahs Possible?

Europe bet big on its ability to get Iran to suspend its nuclear fuel program. Now it looks like the EU triumvirate may have lost. Over the weekend, Iran said it would reject Europe's non-threatening offer. What now? When the carrot fails, is it time for the stick?


German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, his British counterpart Jack Straw and Iranian nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhan in May. Now it looks like all the hard work may have been fruitless.
AFP

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, his British counterpart Jack Straw and Iranian nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhan in May. Now it looks like all the hard work may have been fruitless.

It's vacation time in Europe, but Germany's foreign minister doesn't have much time for a holiday. He cancelled his three-week trip to the south of France months ago. A week ago Saturday, he came back from a short vacation in Tuscany. Since then, Joschka Fischer has spent a majority of his time on a secure phone line.

The minister sees threatening shadows wherever he casts his gaze: The hopeless situation in Iraq, the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories, terrorism and, of course, the radicals' victory in Iran. No subject bothers Fischer as much at the moment as Iran. A few weeks ago, the country announced they had broken the United Nations' seals on the nuclear plant in Isfahan and resumed work on controversial uranium processing again. Since then, Europe has been working assiduously to get them to compromise. But, over the weekend, Iran's Foreign Ministry let it be known that all the European diplomacy was floundering: the plan so carefully worked out by Europe was "unacceptable," the ministry announced. And, on Monday, Iran resumed its controversial uranium enrichment which was halted under international pressure nine months ago. The mullahs also indicated they are unruffled about the Europeans' threat to refer Iran to the UN for possible sanctions.

Fischer's response was clear and direct, insisting that keeping such a nuclear program can only mean one thing -- Iran is trying to build a bomb. "When I look at their nuclear program, then it makes absolutely no sense if the only purpose is to create electricity," he said. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he is "very concerned about the confrontational line that Iran appears to have introduced."

Officially, the door to diplomacy is still open. The mullahs have said that they will send their rejection to the Europeans this week. Its wording will be telling, as will the European response. Already, though, the signs are not good. Hamidreza Assefi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the documents drawn up by Germany, France and Britain on behalf of the European Union "do not meet Iran's minimum expectations."

The Europeans, meanwhile, are stressing patience and insist they are not ready to throw in the towel. They have called an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors on Tuesday. If Iran holds its hard line -- as it likely will -- the case will move to the UN Security Council, which could punish Iran with economic sanctions. Still, the Europeans insist they are not ready to take that measure yet.

But even the UN option has flaws. The Russians and Chinese would most likely object given their active arms trade with Iran. Even the Western powers would be resistant to placing an oil or gas embargo, thereby raising energy prices and burdening their own economies. Iran is clearly aware of their jitters.

Chronology of diplomatic failure

Technicians working at Iran's uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.
REUTERS

Technicians working at Iran's uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.

How did the crisis reach this point? And how did Europe's great chance at diplomacy wither so quickly? For his part, Fischer knew the negotiations would not be easy. Last week, he talked twice with Mohammed al-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association in Vienna. He also chatted with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and with colleagues in Paris and London.

The questions were always the same: How can we keep the regime in Teheran from developing nuclear weapons? How willing are the mullahs to risk a break with the international community? Have the Germans, British and French - the European Union's chief negotiators - misjudged Iran's willingness to compromise?

The Europeans, Americans, Russians, Chinese and Israelis all accept one fact: The regime in Tehran is working on building a nuclear bomb, even if they continually emphasize they are only interested in the civilian use of nuclear power.

It's a situation that causes nightmares not just for Western foreign ministers. A mullah-republic in possession of a nuclear bomb would radically change the power structure in the region and spark a nuclear arms race between Iran, the Arabic countries, Israel and possibly Turkey. Such a race would have "very dangerous strategic consequences for Central Europe as well," according to Fischer.

The German foreign minister believed so strongly in the danger, that he risked his own reputation to try to prevent it. It was he, together with his colleagues in Paris and London, who lobbied to serve as mediators. Together they were able to convince the hesitant and distrustful American government to allow Europe to lead the way and try diplomacy, rather than saber-rattling and a more "robust" approach.

The European approach was viewed tacitly as the opposite of the one taken by the United States in Iraq. The carrot, not the stick, was supposed to take precedent. In the end, Washington agreed to give it a try. There was not much to lose. "We truly hope the Europeans are successful," said Secretary of State Rice, thereby ridding herself of any responsibility should they fail. It was a major chance for the Europeans. Global politics was not only going to be practiced in Washington, but London, Paris and Berlin as well.

Europe's carrot

For Fischer, it was also a great political chance. All of sudden, he was no longer just another mediator among many, like in the conflict in the Middle East. In one swoop, he stood right in the middle. Iran was his conflict. If he could convince Tehran to compromise, he would celebrate a historic success. Should he fail -- as it now seems he has -- his legacy would include a massive defeat.

The minister knew what he and his colleagues were up against. He knew the chances for success were slim. As such, the Europeans spent last week assiduously working on their proposal. As Tehran increased the pressure and threatened to restart processing at the controversial plant in Isfahan, Fischer and his European partners consulted with the Americans, Russians, Chinese and Israelis. In the end, all agreed.

At 8 a.m. Central European Time on Aug. 5, European ambassadors presented the department head in the Iranian Foreign Ministry the result. In 34 pages, the Europeans sketched out their "comprehensive cooperation proposal," which, according to Fischer, was designed to keep Tehran from the bomb.

The proposal is all carrots. The stick was left behind.

In it, Europe agreed:

  • To formally recognize Iran's right to the civil use of nuclear energy
  • To guarantee a lasting supply of nuclear fuel to Iran's nuclear plants
  • To help out on nuclear research
  • To lift limits on technology exports

In addition, the Europeans offered long-term cooperation: in trade, investment, technology transfers, education and research in communication and computer technologies, environmental protection, transportation infrastructure on land, sea and in the air. Even tourism would be promoted, as long as Iran signed a contract promising not to enrich uranium and allow comprehensive inspections by the Viennese atomic agency. Human rights and promises to avoid violence and peacefully negotiate conflicts are mentioned.

But the Europeans couldn't deliver on what Tehran referred to as the "key question": The document is vague on security guarantees for Iran.

Indeed, in his inaugural address on Sunday, the strongly conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, formerly the mayor of Tehran, indicated how important it is for Iran to maintain its rights. He did not specifically refer to Iran's nuclear rights or its nuclear program, but the undertone was there.

"We want peace and justice for all. They are an integral part of our foreign policy," he said, addressing senior Iranian officials and foreign ambassadors. "I stress on these two principles so that countries which use the instrument of threat against our nation know that our people will never give up its right to justice."

Mullahs not afraid of Europe

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, walks past photos of Iranian members of Parliament martyrs after he was sworn in as president on Aug. 6.
AP

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, walks past photos of Iranian members of Parliament martyrs after he was sworn in as president on Aug. 6.

Among the elements of the European proposal was a promise by Britain and France to uphold a 1995 assurance that nuclear powers would not attack countries without nuclear weapons -- an assurance that George W. Bush and the U.S. have long abandoned.

And the truth is, the Iranians are as little concerned about a nuclear attack from France and Britain as they are about a European military invasion. Tehran is more worried that the US and Israel could act on their cloaked threats and attack Iranian nuclear plants.

The fear isn't totally unfounded. On orders from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, the Pentagon has been working on plans for air attacks using conventional and nuclear weapons for a long time. The military is already simulating how to bring Teheran down through air attacks, commando operations and the use of ground troops. Even Israel has said it would "not tolerate" Iran building the bomb.

To the mullahs, the Europeans' security offer is worthless without non-attack guarantees from Jerusalem and Washington. There is also no evidence of assurances from the US or Israel in the European trio's document. Washington, which was not ready to commit to anything, found it easy to agree with the Europeans' proposal.

The Europeans avoided any threats in their proposal. They wouldn't have been able to push much anyway.

An additional factor is that the nuclear fight has long been elevated to a form of religious war in Iran, where the lines between proponents of a compromise and advocates of confrontation are blurred. To the mullahs, it's not just about the energy needs of the country of 68 million people. The nuclear conflict is about a bitter power struggle between reformers and religious conservatives, who, through mismanagement and nepotism, have pushed the country to the political brink.

Iran admits to previous nuclear attempts

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US President George W. Bush hoped Europe would be successful in its negotiations, but didn't put much faith in the plan.
AFP

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US President George W. Bush hoped Europe would be successful in its negotiations, but didn't put much faith in the plan.

The reform-ready President Mohammad Khatami, who last week left office after eight years, gave Fischer and the Europeans hope for a positive resolution to the conflict. But in their optimism, they underestimated the power of religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The political successor to the Islamic revolution leader Ayatollah Khomenei is still the untouchable ruler of the Islamic country.

Even critics say Khamenei might be getting more gentle with age. After all, the negotiations with Berlin, London and Paris could not have begun without his approval. But even the protector of the revolution is under pressure from the murky "mullah-cratic" network of councils and religious leaders. In contrast to his predecessor, Khamenei is not recognized as a religious scholar. He can't afford an open conflict with the hardliners in his own ranks.

The radicals don't need to push the new head of state, Ahmadinejad, to get tougher. Even before his election, he accused the Iranian negotiators of far too much compliance in their rounds with the EU.

There is little reason to believe the mullahs' statements that they have no intention of building a bomb. No one in the European capitals has forgotten how hard Iran tried in the past to hide its nuclear ambitions. Iranian opposition groups were only able to unearth details of secret nuclear plants in the past three years.

The mullah regime was forced to admit that they had begun construction on an unauthorized uranium-enriching plant in Natanz. What followed was an avalanche. In the months since, the Iranian government has had to admit

  • That it already tried secretly acquiring nuclear technology from Pakistan in the 1990s.
  • That it constructed a heavy-water research reactor in Arak that experts said made little economic sense -- unless they wanted to use it to acquire plutonium for a nuclear weapon
  • That they have already transformed 37 tons of pure uranium into uranium-hexafluoride, from which "five simple atom bombs" can be built, according to the UN Inspector David Albright.

Iran has not willingly admitted to any of the revelations, something that makes the IAEA commission experts skeptical. The Iranians have often played a cat and mouse game with UN inspectors. They've banned their entrance into the country for a few weeks; they've said that documents demanded by the international authorities were not "readily available" or had gone missing; and they gave incomplete answers regarding contaminated samples.

Then the mullahs took steps towards cooperation and compromise, like the IAEA Additional Protocol signed in October 2003 under pressure from the Europeans. The agreement guaranteed IAEA inspectors unannounced access to suspected plants. It's always the same process: secretly gather facts, openly provoke, agree to last minute concessions before deciding to break off talks -- and at the end start all over again.

Even IAEA chief Mohammed al-Baradei -- who the US accuses of appeasing Tehran -- is using an increasingly harsher tone. As before, the agency is missing a "smoking Colt" that undoubtedly proves Tehran is pursuing prohibited nuclear weapon ambitions: "We aren't God, we can't read minds."

The Egyptian is pursuing a political solution. He would like to avoid the possibility that Iran, like North Korea, completely revokes the Nonproliferation Treaty and -- with the potential for blackmail -- no longer has to surrender to international controls.

A political solution is also Fischer's goal. "Iran could actually become the big winner in the Middle East," he said. "A dependable, democratic country could reach all of its goals." But he doesn't have much hope that something like that can or will happen.

DIETER BEDNARZ, EWICH FOLLATH, KONSTANTIN VON HAMMERSTEIN, ALEXANDER SZANDAR

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