Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trading between issues

The US is facing deadlock over Iran's nuclear file; a breakthrough, however, might be possible on Iraq, Rasha Saad reports

As expected, Russia, backed by China, has succeeded so far in blocking an agreement on a UN Security Council (UNSC) statement aimed at quashing Iran's nuclear ambitions. The UNSC has struggled for nearly two weeks to issue a statement demanding Iran stop uranium enrichment efforts the West believes are cover for bomb-making while Iran insists its nuclear research is strictly for peaceful purposes.

While a majority of the 15-nation UNSC backs the United States, Britain and France, permanent council members Russia and China distrust any language they feel will lead to sanctions and diminish the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Talks, according to officials, have focussed on allaying Russian and Chinese fears.

Indicating difficulties, the UNSC this week put off a scheduled meeting on the issue to a later date. US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns downplayed the significance of the delay Monday. "It may take a little bit of time, but it's going to be worth the time because when we do achieve that statement, it will be yet another clear unified message by the international community that Iran has to heed the words of both the IAEA and the Security Council," he said.

Monday's meeting, hosted by British Foreign Office Director John Sawers, occurred hours after a letter came to light detailing Britain's approach to Iran. According to reports, the confidential document from Sawers laid out a scenario to try to get Russia and China behind increasingly tough measures to pressure Iran to abandon uranium enrichment and reprocessing.

Sawers said Britain's assessment is that the Iranians "will not feel under much pressure" from a UNSC statement alone, "and they will need to know that more serious measures are likely." He envisioned the adoption of a follow-up UNSC resolution in early May which would make Iran's suspension of uranium enrichment mandatory. Britain wants the resolution adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which means it would be militarily enforceable, Sawers said.

In return for Russian and Chinese support, the Sawers document revealed, Western countries should put together a package of incentives that could be offered to Iran in a new proposal. It was suggested that this package could be finalised in June, on the margins of a foreign ministers' meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) major industrialised nations and Russia.

Moscow holds the G8 presidency this year and Sawers noted that the West's influence on Russia "will be at its maximum" in the run-up to the group's summit in July in St Petersburg. Along with a new proposal, Sawers said, "we will also want to bind Russia and China into agreeing to further measures that will be taken by the Security Council should the Iranians fail to engage positively."

Sawers recognised in the letter that, "we are not going to bring the Russians and Chinese to accept significant sanctions over the coming months, certainly not without further efforts to bring the Iranians around."

No details were forthcoming on what new incentives would be offered in exchange for a negotiated settlement on a moratorium on uranium enrichment by Iran.

But any talks with US involvement likely, analysts say, would need to focus not only on economic incentives but security guarantees meant to reassure Tehran that Washington has no plans to force regime change in Iran. Critics of US policy have maintained for years that Tehran was unlikely to compromise on its nuclear programme without such direct guarantees. In fact, the failure of European-Iranian talks -- halted in August 2005 -- was often deemed as resulting from the failure of the US to offer its backing to this dialogue.

Analysts argue that now with talks stalled in the UNSC, moderate US administration officials might be ready to contemplate direct multilateral talks with Tehran similar to the six-nation talks with North Korea designed to get it to give up its nuclear arms aspirations. Indeed, the prospect of US involvement in such talks seems more realistic after the Bush administration's decision earlier this week to talk to Iranian officials about Iraq after a nearly three-decade break in diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Despite insistence from officials from both Iran and the US that talks would not touch on the nuclear issue, dialogue between Tehran and Washington on Iraq could stem growing differences between the two countries over Iran's nuclear activities. While US and Iranian officials underplayed the significance of these talks, with US officials saying that there would be no negotiations, but only an exchange over US concerns that Iran was "meddling" in Iraq, and Iranian officials saying they will only tell the Americans to end the occupation, both sides are believed to see great importance in these talks. In fact, Iranian analysts interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly believe that Washington is pressuring Iran over its nuclear file to get concessions from Tehran on Iraq. Iranians hope that a deal with the US on Iraq will decrease pressure relative to the nuclear file.

On the other hand it was critical for the Bush administration to engage Iran, which is seen as more powerful than the US in Iraq, as the US contemplates an exit strategy from Iraq. Moreover, the US drive to threaten Iran with sanctions for its nuclear activities faces opposition in the UNSC. Washington also did not have great success whipping up support against Iran as a danger to Middle East peace.

Representatives of the two countries have met in multilateral gatherings in the past for efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, but this is the first time, since the Islamic Revolution, that Iran has formally agreed to hold direct talks with the US.

News of these talks, however, is backfiring in Iraq. The talks, called for by the influential head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul-Aziz Hakim, one of the main Shia political parties in the country, caused a political split inside Iraq as Sunni leaders condemned the move. "We are indignant over the request made to Iran by [Iraqi] political parties to open a dialogue with the Americans on their differences regarding Iraq," read a statement issued by the Association of Muslim Scholars, one of Iraq's most prominent Sunni Arab organisations. "The interference of Iran in Iraqi affairs is nothing new," said the statement, explaining that the call "does nothing more than legitimise this interference and give it an international cover."

The largest Sunni Arab political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, weighed in with a statement of its own on Friday, condemning any such talks in the "strongest terms", describing them as an "unjustified and egregious interference in Iraqi affairs".

Such condemnations highlight a major split among Iraq's political forces, with the Shias -- especially Hakim's party -- having close ties to Iran while the Sunnis have long been suspicious of the Islamic Republic. The Iraqi National Accord Party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia with cross-sectarian coalition support, expressed doubts about the dialogue since "it is against the interests of the people if the [Iraqi] government and the representatives of the political parties are not involved."

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