Thursday, November 29, 2007
With opponents divided, Iran continues nuclear effortWith opponents divided, Iran continues nuclear effort
By Elaine Sciolino
Thursday, November 29, 2007
PARIS: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is known for overheated, boastful pronouncements. So it was hardly a surprise earlier this month when he declared that despite demands from the United States and other countries that Iran stop enriching uranium, Tehran was pressing ahead and negotiations were out of the question.
"From our point of view," he said, "this subject is closed."
In this case, Iran's intransigence appears to be defeating whatever new attempts are made by the rest of the world to curtail its nuclear ambitions, at least for the moment.
Nine months after the United Nations Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on Iran to pressure it to stop its nuclear activities, and threatened more if it refused, Iran has steadily increased its enrichment of uranium, which can be used to produce electricity or fuel bombs. At the same time, the nations that joined together behind the sanctions are now divided over what to do next.
The foreign ministers from the six nations that backed the United Nations sanctions are now facing another decision on Iran, having agreed to pass a new Security Council resolution if there were no signs of progress in negotiations with Tehran by Friday.
But nothing seems to be bending the will of Iran, which is flush with oil revenues. The incentive strategy, led by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy adviser, has failed to entice Iran to stop enrichment in exchange for economic, political and technological rewards. So has the punishment approach of increasing sanctions, as Russia and China hold firm to the view that further punishment will only intensify the standoff.
In May, desperate to engage Iran, the six nations leading the negotiations made a small, but important, concession. They offered a brief freeze in further sanctions if Iran froze its enrichment program at the current level - effectively dropping their demand that Iran stop enrichment altogether. But that face-saving idea, known as a "double freeze," barely got Tehran's attention.
"The chosen strategy of pressure and engagement is not working," said one senior European official involved in the diplomacy. "As a result, you have a lot of people desperately banging on the door of the Iranians. All of them are coming back empty-handed."
Last week Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency, reported that while Iran was cooperating on answering questions about past nuclear activities, it had crossed the threshold of putting into operation 3,000 centrifuges. He added that restrictions placed on his inspectors by Iran precluded his agency from determining whether Iran's nuclear program was intended to generate power or make weapons.
On Friday, Solana is scheduled to meet in London with Iran's new nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, before reporting to officials from the six countries. But Iran's official government spokesman said this week that enrichment would not even be on their agenda.
Representatives of six nations - the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany - will then meet in Paris on Saturday to discuss a possible new Security Council resolution. But in interviews, officials from those countries expressed frustration in dealing with Iran, and a growing consensus that the momentum in their diplomacy had evaporated and that any new resolution would be weak.
"As far as new ideas, I don't have any new ideas to offer," Solana told reporters on Wednesday. Privately, he has told governments that the most they can hope for is a cap on Iran's enrichment program at some point in the future, according to officials involved in the conversations.
The Security Council has twice imposed limited economic and political sanctions that aim to freeze Iranian assets linked to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Although there is considerable debate inside Iran on the wisdom of continuing a nuclear policy that isolates the country, the sanctions have hardly budged Iran.
Kim Howells, a senior official in the British Foreign Office, told a Parliament committee on Wednesday that the current sanctions were "pretty weak" and that "I don't think the UN is going out of its way to cripple Iran in any way."
Behind the scenes, the impasse has encouraged a number of independent initiatives by would-be deal makers, complicating the joint diplomacy of the six powers. Switzerland floated a plan with detailed mathematical formulas that would allow Iran to expand its enrichment program but would set limits on how fast it could do so. The plan, which is contrary to the Security Council resolutions, has been criticized by the six powers.
Russia has recently tried but failed to sway Iran to compromise. During a recent visit to Tehran, President Vladimir Putin of Russia was granted a rare audience with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But when Putin sent his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to Tehran, he received a frosty reception and returned home furious, Russian, Iranian and European officials said. Still, Russia prefers to make the next priority not more sanctions but winning Iran's cooperation on allowing wider inspections of its nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency, senior Russian and Western European officials said.
China, meanwhile, whose trade with Iran is soaring, has missed two recent meetings of the six powers, thought it is expected to attend the meeting Saturday.
The only negotiating process with Iran that seems to be moving forward is the limited one aimed at resolving questions the agency has about its past nuclear activity. Under a formal agreement reached last summer with the agency, Iran has begun to turn over documents and make various officials and former officials available for interviews.
Both agency and Iranian officials say that it is likely to take months before Iran resolves the remaining past issues. As long as Iran is making progress on this front, the United States and its European allies are likely to have a difficult time persuading Russia and China to agree to further Security Council sanctions.
Perhaps the biggest setback in the recent attempts to negotiate with Iran was the failure of the "double freeze" proposal. Early last May in Brussels, the six powers first presented a visiting Iranian delegation with what they considered the generous offer to temporarily "freeze" all further punitive action in the Security Council if Iran put a temporary "freeze" on expansion of its enrichment program.
But the Iranians at the table did not even bother to read the document, nor was there ever an official response.
Solana repeated the offer in Rome last month, but it was rejected, officials involved in the negotiations said.
Even so, the apparent softening of the six powers' demand on uranium enrichment - however brief - may have helped convince Iran that its policy of defiance was paying off. "Of course the proposal could be seen as moving our red line," said one senior official involved in the diplomacy. "But we are diplomats. We have to find a formula for negotiations with Iran."