Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Whose victory?

America's persistent attempts to refer Iran to the Security Council have finally bore fruit. For Iran, however, the endgame has not yet begun, Rasha Saad writes

This week Iran carried out its threat and announced it would no longer allow snap UN checks of its nuclear sites and would also end its suspension of full-scale uranium enrichment. The decision came in retaliation for Saturday's vote at the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in favour of referring Iran to the Security Council. After nearly two years of relentless US endeavours to convince the world community about the dangers posed by Iran, Washington is finally reaping the harvest after securing European backing.

The IAEA resolution voted on Saturday was tabled by Britain, France and Germany -- the so-called EU3 -- after saying they had reached the "end of the road" in attempts to persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment programme in exchange for economic and technological incentives. The EU and Iran have for some time been trading blame for the failure of negotiations.

The IAEA resolution requests the agency's director-general, Mohamed El-Baradei, to relay to the Security Council the steps Iran must take to dispel suspicions about its nuclear ambitions. These include a moratorium on uranium enrichment, halting construction of a heavy-water reactor that could be a source of plutonium, formally ratifying an additional protocol agreement allowing the IAEA streamlined inspection rights, and affording the agency more power in its investigation of Iran's nuclear programme.

Twenty-seven states out of 35 on the IAEA Board of Governors backed the resolution, with three against and five abstentions. Russia and China, Iran's traditional allies agreed to support the resolution on condition it did not contain any immediate threat of sanctions against Iran. A statement from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry made it clear that Egypt approved the resolution only after its proposal to include a reference to making the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone was included. Reports are that the US initially rejected the proposed clause, which it perceived as an attack on Israel. However, Washington eventually agreed to the clause after it received overwhelming backing from European allies.

Subsequent action following the passing of the resolution is postponed until a report is delivered by agency chief Mohamed El-Baradei at the next IAEA meeting on 6 March.

US President George W Bush said the IAEA's resolution "sent a clear message to the regime in Iran" that it would not be allowed to gain nuclear weapons. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also saw in the referral move "a very strong and determined signal to the Iranian leadership that it should fully suspend its nuclear programme."

However strong, the signal appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Iran's parliament on Monday convened an emergency closed-door session to discuss the country's next steps. According to Iran's official IRNA news agency, MPs unanimously insisted on the Iranian nation's inalienable right to access nuclear energy. "There is a consensus among all deputies on the need to access peaceful nuclear energy," Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said after the meeting.

Iran has consistently rejected demands that indefinitely halt its nuclear activities in order to allay Western fears. It regards the issue as a test of Iranian sovereignty. The Islamic republic has long stressed that its decision to halt uranium enrichment (which it insists was, and would be in the future, for peaceful purposes) was a good will and voluntary action.

For Iran, this approach has proven futile. "We are now at the end of one phase where the Islamic republic was building trust, going beyond its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments and cooperating within the framework of the additional protocol," government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said. "Our use of nuclear technology is very transparent, and as President Ahmadinejad has said, we will continue our nuclear programme within the framework of the NPT," Elham added.

While analysts believe the IAEA's resolution is a set back and a significant escalation in Iran's confrontation with the West, Elham insists the resolution was good for the Islamic republic. "From our position it was a victory. The government and people are hand in hand and that is a victory. The breaking of the consensus on the IAEA board was a victory. And the position of the West shows the second and third generation of the Islamic republic that they don't want Iran to progress, and that too is a victory," he explained.

However, not all Iranians approve this view. The handling of the Iranian nuclear file was a bone of contention between Iran's reformist camp, led by former President Mohamed Khatami, and the Conservative camp, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian press best portrayed such internal divisions; with some conservative papers calling for a continued hard line, and reformist papers worrying that this approach is at the root of Tehran's problems.

For the conservative Kayhan newspaper, pulling out of the NPT is the most prudent option. "Recent events regarding Iran's nuclear conflict and the new activities of America, the Europeans and the IAEA make it crystal clear that withdrawal from the NPT is the most rational act that Iran can take," the paper wrote.

Reformist Etemaad wrote that Iran's policies for finding a way out of the nuclear crisis have been imprisoned by a series of slogans that were useful only in electoral campaigns: "By being trapped by these slogans and ignoring the realities of the world, Iran has strengthened America's position, and the European countries that used to be Iran's allies are now in America's camp," the paper said.

Iran seems to be banking on its position as an oil-rich heavyweight. It believes it still would have the upper hand if it came to enduring sanctions. "Energy is a matter for the West, and we are not interested in causing problems for them. Any decision in this regard will not hurt us. It will hurt the consumers and not the producers. We are in a position of power when it comes to energy, and it will not have any affect on our budget," Elham stated.

Indeed oil prices have risen sharply on news that Iran will no longer allow snap inspections of its nuclear sites. The price of US light, sweet crude rose from $1.01 to $66.38 a barrel, while Brent crude rose 97 cents to reach $64.38 a barrel.

Iran does not see the IAEA resolution as the end of the game, underlining that it is still seeking a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. In an apparent softening of its position, Iran said it was willing to discuss Moscow's proposal to shift large-scale enrichment operations to Russian territory in an effort to allay suspicions and improve its position before Al-Baradie finalises his March report.

Before the IAEA voted to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the Security Council on Saturday, Iran had threatened to walk away from future talks with Moscow on a proposal which was seen as a means of assuring the world that the process would not produce materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Iranian nuclear officials are due to meet Russian counterparts 16 February in Moscow to discuss the proposal. Observers say if the two sides reach agreement a way will be opened which could end the current standoff.

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