Iran decided on Tuesday to OK inspections of its nuclear program and halt uranium enrichment, affirming that “nuclear weapons have no place in Iran’s defence doctrine.” Good news for international security? A score for old-school dialogue and diplomacy, as practiced by the three E.U. foreign ministers who brokered the deal? With Iran nothing is ever that simple.
For starters, it’s not clear the Iranians are serious. The agreement comes amid escalating tension between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United States as the agency’s Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to cop to its nuclear program approached. Iran, in the face of remarkably unified world opinion, had to make some kind of gesture.
The Bush administration gave the agreement a tepid reception. “Frankly, I’d say there’s a good reason for healthy skepticism about what Iran will actually do, as opposed to what it says,” said a senior State Department official. President Bush was guardedly optimistic. He called the deal a “positive development,” but added, “The Iranians look like they’re accepting the demands of the free world, and now it’s up to them to prove that they’ve accepted the demands.” Iran has long argued that its nuclear research does not include a weapons program, the international community has, to put it mildly, been skeptical.
And the nature of the announcement — delivered pointedly to the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, in a calculated slap at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United States — doesn’t do a whole lot to improve the atmosphere between Washington and Tehran.
Mohammed Khatami, the Iranian prime minister, on a triumphantly mixing his metaphors, rubbed it in:
“It’s been like a boxing match with a powerful, unjust rival [that would be the United States] trying to sway world opinion. Now it has turned into a marathon run. The world has learned that we have been sincere.”
And Iran’s representative to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the agreement marked a victory for the European Union’s policy of “conditional engagement.” The E.U., he said, “showed the U.S. that global issues can’t be resolved by war and destruction, but by dialogue. It’s a victory for us, the E.U. and the international community.”
(This recent study by the International Crisis Group found that engaging, not confronting Iran, would be the most fruitful approach for the U.S.)
It’s clear the deal is at least a short-term diplomatic win for Iran. “Iran played it carefully and got good results,” Sadeq Zibakalam, a political science professor at Tehran University, told AP. “Iran’s best position is to undermine the EU-U.S. alliance against Tehran. With the EU losing the game to the U.S. over Iraq, the Europeans didn’t want to give away to the U.S. in Iran’s case.”
Iranian hard liners are less than thrilled with the deal, seeing it not as further proof of U.S. cunning. Jomhuri-ye Eslami, a conservative daily, fumed:
Do not accept this disgrace!… The IAEA is dominated and controlled by America. This means that the United States is trying to pave the way for its return to Iran by obstructing Iran’s nuclear activities. The Europeans are acting as brokers who implement America’s demands… Now our officials have reached the conclusion that in order to protect our dignity, security and independence, we need the permission of America, Britain, France and Germany!
Aside from the question of short-range advantage, there is, of course the much larger question of what the “deal” is worth and whether it will stick. Firstly, Iran insists the suspension of uranium enrichment is temporary and voluntary, and many questions remain as to whether the Iranians will comply. The New York Times notes that Iran doesn’t have a great track record in keeping its word.
“[Iran] has been less than candid about its nuclear activities in the past and appears to have used the cover of a civilian nuclear power program to develop weapons-building capacity. Therefore, it bears the burden of convincing the world that it has no intention of producing nuclear weapons, now or in the future.
Yet Iran needs to go further. Uranium imports should be suspended along with uranium enrichment. Centrifuges that can be used for enriching uranium should be dismantled, and no new ones imported or built. It should also be kept in mind that Iran’s elected government does not always speak for all of the country’s power centers. Its religious leadership must also see to it that the latest pledges are fully honored in letter and spirit. It is troubling that a cleric involved in the negotiations yesterday emphasized that the suspension of uranium enrichment might not be permanent and that none of Iran’s latest promises were final until ratified by Parliament.”
It doesn’t help, as quite a few people have pointed out, that the details of the agreement are vague . While Iran was due to hand over documents detailing its nuclear programs on Wednesday, it’s not clear when inspections will start, or exactly how they will be carried out. While the steps are encouraging, there seems to be no assurance of success. Especially as the Bush administration is beginning to pipe up about Al-Qaeda operatives building support in Iran. As, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the IAEA, writes in the Economist, Iran’s nuclear technology is thought to be fairly advanced.
“Should a state with a fully developed fuel-cycle capability decide […] to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, most experts believe it could produce a nuclear weapon within a matter of months.”
The Iranian nuclear worries don’t help regional stability. The Daily Star of Beirut reminds us that while Iran, along with Iraq, Syria and North Korea, is a charter member of the “axis of evil,” it’s not the only country in the region under threat.
“The negotiations resulted in a palpable defusing of tensions, a fact that has to be viewed positively by everyone in the region – except Syria. That country is now more exposed than ever, a situation made all the more perilous by what looks like its governmentÕs failure to recognize the danger.
The accusations leveled at Tehran and Damascus have been chillingly reminiscent of those directed at Baghdad before the invasion. Iran is taking action to keep itself out of the American noose, but Syria acts as though it might be more worried about a trade dispute with Andorra. This is uncharted territory, so there are no traditional rules governing the next step for Syrian diplomacy. The only certainty is that the current course is the wrong one.”
With such high stakes at hand for both Syria and Iran, keeping on the good side of the international community is key. Whether Iran is sincere, or just stalling for time, remains to be seen. Also unclear are the Bush administration’s (possibly violent) plans for Iran, which could make all this academic. Security is still a long way off.