U.S. Offer Fails to End EU-Iran Impasse

Paul Kerr

Despite a U.S. offer in March designed to strengthen their hand, three European nations have been unable to produce any major breakthroughs in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Still, both sides have agreed to continue talks, and Iran has pledged to continue the suspension of its controversial uranium-enrichment program for the duration of the negotiations.

In a March 10 letter to Javier Solana, EU high representative for Common Foreign Security Policy, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom acknowledged that the negotiations are not progressing “as fast as we would wish.” The major sticking point is defining “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Both sides agreed in November to negotiate a long-term agreement that includes such guarantees. (See ACT, December 2004.)

The three European countries want Tehran to cease completely its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment can produce both fuel for nuclear reactors and fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials have stated numerous times that Iran will not give up this program, arguing instead that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring can provide the necessary assurances. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Although Tehran has previously threatened to break off the negotiations, the Europeans said in a March 23 joint statement that the talks would continue. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi told reporters the next day that the talks were a “step forward and constructive.”

The Europeans’ statement followed the first meeting of a higher-level steering committee set up to review the progress of three working groups, which have met several times since beginning work in December 2004. (See ACT, January/February 2005.) The groups had been tasked with developing proposals for mutual cooperation on nuclear and non-nuclear technical projects, as well as political and security issues.

The March 23 joint statement reported that the groups have made “progress on a number of interim measures,” but did not elaborate. According to the foreign ministers’ letter, the Europeans have offered to assist Iran on various aspects of “technical preparation” for its negotiations to accede to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The two sides have already found “some common ground” in discussions about terrorism and drug trafficking, the letter added.

At least two additional meetings have been scheduled. The working group concerned with nuclear issues is to meet during the week of April 11, followed by another steering committee meeting at the end of the month, according to a Department of State official and a European diplomat familiar with the talks.

U.S. Policy Shifts
Meanwhile, in an effort to bridge tactical differences between the United States and the Europeans, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated March 11 that Washington “will drop its objection to Iran’s application to the [WTO] and will consider, on a case by case basis, the licensing of spare parts for Iranian civilian aircraft, in particular from the EU to Iran.”

Although the United States still refuses to participate in the talks, Rice’s statement signaled a modest U.S. policy shift. National security adviser Stephen Hadley told CNN March 13 that the policy change was an effort to bolster the negotiations, adding that these particular incentives were chosen at the Europeans’ request. The Bush administration had previously stated its cautious support for the negotiations but had not offered any incentives to Iran.

U.S. support for Iran’s WTO negotiations is especially important to the Europeans, who promised in November to “actively support the opening of Iranian accession negotiations at the WTO,” which the United States has blocked numerous times. U.S. export licenses are also needed for European firms to be able to sell certain spare aircraft parts, a senior administration official told reporters March 11.

The administration had been mulling a U.S. incentives proposal since President George W. Bush returned from a February trip to Europe, where he held related discussions with various European leaders. Rice’s announcement came in response to the Europeans’ March 10 letter, according to the senior administration official, who implied that the Europeans have toughened their position on Iran in response to U.S. persuasion.

In particular, the official cited the Europeans’ commitment in their letter to push the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council if Tehran does not continue with the negotiations and cooperate with the IAEA’s ongoing investigation of Iran’s past and current nuclear activities. The letter just reiterates European policy, but it is the most explicit public written statement about the Security Council referral option that the Europeans have offered to date. (See ACT, November 2004.)

Under the IAEA’s statute, the board is required to notify the Security Council if a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is found in noncompliance with its safeguards agreements. Those agreements allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use. The council may then take action against the offending state. The IAEA has already found several Iranian safeguards violations, but the United States has repeatedly failed in past attempts to persuade the IAEA board to support a Security Council referral. Tehran has signed an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and agreed to abide by its provisions until ratified by Iran’s parliament. Such protocols augment the agency’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities.

The Bush administration has repeatedly said that Iran should end its enrichment program. Yet, State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli would not say during a March 18 press briefing whether the United States would now support a European deal that did not end Iran’s enrichment efforts. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan also refused to answer a similar question earlier in the month.

Continued Disagreement on Nuclear Facilities
Still, the recent U.S. offer has not yet visibly influenced the negotiations. Hossein Moussavian, secretary of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Supreme National Security Council in Iran, dismissed the U.S. incentives as insignificant in a March 13 BBC interview. Other Iranian officials have stated that economic incentives will not induce them to end their enrichment program.

Article IV of the NPT permits non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to possess uranium-enrichment facilities for civilian purposes under IAEA safeguards. The crux of the two sides’ disagreement is the extent to which Iranian “objective guarantees” of its peaceful nuclear intentions should exceed IAEA safeguards requirements.

Iranian diplomats presented “certain ideas” at the steering committee meeting about such guarantees, according to its European interlocutors’ joint statement. The State Department official and European diplomat said Iran informally proposed to limit its enrichment program to an IAEA-monitored plant containing about 3,000 centrifuges. Iran has a pilot 164-centrifuge facility and has said it wants to build a more-than 50,000-centrifuge commercial facility.

Tehran would also ratify its additional protocol and would allow “intrusive IAEA access” to other facilities, although the Iranians apparently provided no details about the latter.

The State Department official said that Iran’s proposed plant would still cause concern because it could provide Iranian personnel with expertise they could use in a secret centrifuge facility. Washington, the official added, believes Iran has yet to master key steps of the enrichment process, such as producing feedstock for the centrifuges and operating them for sustained periods of time.

Hadley, however, acknowledged March 13 that U.S. intelligence about Iran’s nuclear programs is limited.

The Europeans have also offered to support Iran’s “acquisition” of a light-water nuclear research reactor to replace the heavy-water version Tehran is currently constructing. Both the Europeans and the United States are concerned that Iran may use the latter to produce plutonium for weapons. Light-water reactors are more proliferation resistant. Iran has signaled that it may allow a team of European experts to visit Iran to discuss construction of the light-water reactor but has not agreed to replace the heavy-water reactor, the European diplomat said.

The Iranian “ideas” were not formal proposals and may well not represent Iran’s final negotiating position. A senior Iranian negotiator told the Islamic Students News Agency March 6 that “there could be diverse solutions to this problem.”