Europe’s poker game of diplomacy finds Iran a tough nut

THE poker game of European diplomacy has almost run its course. While no side can claim victory yet, there seems just about an end in sight if the resolution agreed by consensus at Vienna by the International Atomic Energy Agency that urges Iran "to re-establish full suspension of all enrichment related activities" is anything to go by. The resolution has bought itself three weeks’ time to effect its implementation.

By M. N. Hebbar

Published: Sun 21 Aug 2005, 10:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

The European troika —Britain, France and Germany —that prided itself in getting into the game two years ago when Iran agreed to negotiate with them on the issue of dismantling what was euphemistically termed Iran’s national nuclear industry, found itself going nowhere because Iran kept repeating its ‘inalienable right’ to develop nuclear fuel-cycle technology under terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

By the same token, Iran may have calculated that it could get a "soft deal" with Europe that would effectively keep out the United States, without itself having to give up its capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran may have misread that the Europeans had all carrots but few sticks in their cards during their negotiations. But the obvious European trump was that they stuck to their central demand that, having found traces of weapons-grade plutonium at a secret enrichment plant, Iran had violated the obligation that all nuclear activities be solely peaceable and fully open to international inspection.

The Iranians also reckoned without the US backing the EU effort that resulted in stronger transatlantic cooperation than initially envisaged. The exasperated Europeans made a final offer last week of a comprehensive package aimed at reining in Iran’s nuclear programme, proposing that it give up the heavy-water project in return for a light-water reactor, seen by arms control experts as easier to monitor to ensure it’s not being used for weapons. Rejecting the offer, Iran has declared that the heart of the deal, an offer to supply the country with nuclear fuel in return for the dismantling of its own fuel-cycle capability, was an insult to its sovereignty.

The Europeans have got additional support from unexpected quarters. The emergency session of the IAEA board in Vienna saw both Russia and China come out in open support of an EU draft resolution demanding an immediate suspension of fuel conversion. With a nod from Washington, the text has disarmed possible resistance from developing countries by omitting any reference to the UN Security Council.

In reality, we thus have all five permanent members of the UN Security Council working together to evolve a unified response to developments. The implication here is that after the expiry of the mandated three weeks, the IAEA board would be free to refer Iran to the UNSC. With President Bush renewing his threat that if Iran failed to cooperate, UN sanctions were "a potential consequence", German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has balanced it by his moderate stance, saying he saw no option other than negotiations.

For the record, Iran has already rejected the resolution as "absurd" and has even questioned the legitimacy of IAEA’s authority to issue its diktat. While Iran has the right to process uranium for peaceful purposes, what disturbs the West is the fact that Iran kept its facilities hidden for 18 years. While Iran agreed to suspend parts of its uranium programme in negotiations with Europe, it has defied them on its heavy-water project. It is moving full steam ahead.

The jury is still out on whether the Iranian authorities would comply with the September 3 deadline. If Iran’s brinkmanship goes awry, then the country runs the risk of handing its old adversary, the US, a diplomatic coup that could force the UNSC to impose trade sanctions and other punitive measures on Teheran.

Will they play poker again? Will Iran count on the usually inordinate delay that the UN is known for to get its act together and shrug off sanctions even if it bites into its crucial oil exports? And count on "renegade" votes? Iran could, theoretically, move closer to its objective of developing nuclear weapons in the meantime before it cries "halt" if it is forced to! Wait for the next shuffle of cards.

Déjà vu in Germany

NOW that Germany’s election campaign has kicked off, Germany’s strategy in tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions is also among the voters’ criteria in assessing the worthiness of the political parties vying for power at the forthcoming elections in September. A preponderant issue facing the electorate has a déjà vu quality about it. Chancellor Schroeder won his last elections on the main plank of opposition to sending troops to Iraq and the voters are again putting the foreign policy stance of the opposition conservative candidate Angela Merkel, predicted to become chancellor, under the scanner.

In a move aimed at reinforcing Ms. Merkel’s international profile ahead of the elections, the CDU manifesto has already spelt out that a "new start" to US-German relations would be a cornerstone of a Merkel-led administration, following the strain over Germany’s opposition to the Iraq war. Recent polls have shown, however, that more than 70 per cent of Germans are highly sceptical of Ms. Merkel’s pledge not to send troops to Iraq. That said, developments over the last few days have surprised political pundits, who have seen a significant bounce in Schroeder’s popularity as he addresses huge rallies, also taking advantage of some infighting in the opposition camp over Ms. Merkel’s strife with Edmund Stoiber, the head of the sister Christian Social Union, who in recent comments called into question the intelligence of voters in the depressed East.

Chancellor Schroeder is known to be a wily veteran campaigner who has been all but serendipitous in the past, witness the floods in the East and the Iraq war during the last election campaign, to name a few. His personal popularity is also rising and now trails Ms. Merkel only by 10 percentage points. His beleaguered party has also seen a recent rise in opinion polls. With just four weeks to go before the ballots are cast, it seems too early to write off the chances of Germany’s ‘Wunderkind’.

M N Hebbar is a commentator based in Berlin, Germany

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