Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2004
Issue No. 709
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Push and pull

While expressing anger at calls to halt its uranium enrichment activities, Iran still found a way to keep the door open for dialogue. Rasha Saad reports

Iran has reacted defiantly to what it described as "illegal" demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) calling for it to immediately halt all its uranium enrichment activities. In harsh remarks President Mohamed Khatami said on Monday that his country was determined to exercise its right to enrichment as part of "peaceful nuclear technology" even at the risk of severing ties with the IAEA. Khatami also described the IAEA ultimatum as "a sign of the moral decadence of the world and the pre-eminence of force and hypocrisy in international relations".

Iran also caused alarm Sunday by saying that it would be proceeding with the first stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, making the uranium gas that acts as the feed for centrifuges.

Hassan Rowhani, head of Iran's Supreme National Council, who is in charge of the Iranian nuclear file, said that the fuel cycle work was going ahead at a uranium conversion facility in the central city of Isfahan. "We have reached the stage where we can produce nuclear fuel," he said. "People should know that the suspension is not a halt to our activities. In one year we have obtained everything we wanted."

Iranian officials were referring to a resolution issued by the IAEA board which concluded their six-day meeting on Saturday. The resolution, while recognising nations' right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, called on Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities. The resolution also called on Iran to grant full and prompt access to the IAEA's inspectors and provide them with any further information needed by 25 November.

Enrichment is allowed under the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which sets the safeguard requirements which the IAEA monitors. But Iran had agreed with the Euro3 -- France, England and Germany -- to suspend enrichment in October 2003 as a confidence-building gesture.

While Saturday's resolution did not repeat tough diplomatic language that appeared in a June resolution in which the IAEA board described Iranian cooperation as "deplorable", the Islamic Republic believes it has been treated unfairly as the suspension decision was included in the terms of the resolution. Iran said that it would accept a suspension "through negotiations" and if it was a "voluntary decision". Despite the harsh language adopted by Iran, its refrain from blunt rejection of the resolution may be interpreted as indicating the desire to leave the door open for negotiations.

Iranian analyst Mohamed Sadeq Al-Husseini hailed Iran's reaction to the resolution as fair and firm at the same time. "Iran was fair and logical when it left the door open in dealing with the IAEA and Europe despite the objections it has to their stances. However, it has closed the door firmly on any US pressure to force it to involuntarily suspend its peaceful uranium enrichment activities," Al-Husseini told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The IAEA's meetings that started last Monday witnessed sharp divisions among members on the terms of the final resolution. During the stormy meetings, Washington had pushed to drop mention of countries' rights to peaceful nuclear activities and fought for a 31 October deadline, with the understanding that if Iran failed to comply the board would then automatically begin deliberations on Security Council referral. The phrasing accepted instead left it up to the board to debate what action -- if any -- to take when it reconvenes on 25 November should Iran be found to have ignored the demand to freeze enrichment or any other of the conditions.

The IAEA has been investigating Iran's nuclear programme since February 2003. In six lengthy written reports it has documented what it perceives as Iranian breaches of the NPT, but has not found any "smoking gun" that would prove US allegations that Iran has drawn up plans for an atomic bomb. The UN watchdog has therefore reached no conclusions about whether Iran should be cited for non-compliance with the treaty. Iran says the breaches took place in the past and it has now responded to the IAEA's concerns. During previous meetings the US has been pushing for a tough resolution that would bring the Iranian nuclear file before the Security Council.

During last week's IAEA meetings, the main opposition to the US-adopted version of the resolution were the non-aligned nations in the 35-nation meeting who feared that the demand for the enrichment freeze could set a bad precedent, since many of them, including Brazil and South Africa, have enrichment programmes and fear that someday they too could be told to freeze their commercial enrichment activities.

While Iran's relations with the Euro trio seemed shaky following the IAEA meeting, the Islamic Republic was quick to forge new alliances. Following the meetings, Iran said that it will open a channel for dialogue with some of the non-aligned countries which have shown support for Iran's cause in the meetings, including China, Pakistan, Russia, and possibly Brazil and south Africa.

Iran expressed alarm at the European stance during the meetings, accusing the Euro3 of breaking the October 2003 accord on Iran's cooperation and of failing to deliver on their commitment to the Islamic Republic to close Iran's dossier at the IAEA's board meeting.

"The three Europeans have violated the terms of the accord regarding enrichment because the suspension of enrichment was voluntary," Rowhani said.

Iranian officials have said that while they will continue to cooperate with the Europeans, they will no longer trust them.

Al-Husseini fears that until the November deadline arrives, Iran will have some difficult days ahead. According to him, while the US opposition to Iranian nuclear activities has always been political rather than technical, the US tone this time sounded harsher than ever. He cited US officials' statements that Washington could call on the IAEA to meet earlier than the next planned board of governors' meeting in November if the suspension was not working out, threatening that other measures were possible.

"We have the option to do something before November. We are not now going to sleep until November," said US Under Secretary of State John Bolton.

However Fahmy Howeidy, Egyptian analyst and expert on Iranian affairs, believes that these statements are just verbal pressure on Iran, and that Washington will not take any serious measures because it is preoccupied with the presidential elections due also in November.

"Iran is well aware of that fact, and accordingly it is acting defiantly at this stage," Howeidy told the Weekly.

Howeidy also explained that Iran has an important moral justification for its defiant attitude, if its case is compared with that of Israel, which has always refused to sign the NPT in the first place so as to prevent its nuclear facilities from being checked.

"So until the end of the year, there will be no winner or loser in the nuclear battle," Howeidy opined. "Until the results of the presidential elections are known, both the US and Iran will continue pulling and pushing."

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