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Talk time
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 05 - 2005

Amid nuclear deadlock, emergency talks began yesterday between Iran and the EU, Rasha Saad reports
In statements issued this week both Iranian and European officials underlined that emergency nuclear talks, which started yesterday in Geneva, would be tough and crucial. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier described the current juncture as "very fragile and complex", with Iranian negotiator Hussein Moussavian admitting that "the most difficult part of negotiations" had been reached, following a closed-door preparatory meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
France, Britain and Germany (the EU-3) called for the meeting with Iran after Tehran announced it would resume uranium conversion activities; a move, according to the Europeans, that would violate the November accord -- known as the Paris Agreement -- on freezing nuclear fuel processing and opening long-term talks.
Iran, impatient of the prolonged and fruitless nuclear talks which started in December 2004 threatened in late April that it would resume part of its uranium enrichment activities at a plant near the central city of Isfahan. While Iranian officials called the measure "irreversible", in a good will gesture Iran said it would delay resuming work there for at least a few weeks.
With both sides playing the blame game, both hinted at the drastic consequences of the failure of the talks.
Earlier this month, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned that Iran's referral to the UN Security Council remained "an option" if Tehran went back on its earlier commitment to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. Straw's comments followed a letter by the Europeans to Hassan Rowhani, the Iran's official responsible of the nuclear file, on 11 May warning against breaking the Paris deal.
"Iran should be in no doubt that any such change to the suspension would be a clear breach of the Paris Agreement," the letter warned Tehran. "It would bring the negotiating process to an end. The consequences beyond could only be negative for Iran," it added.
In response, Iran warned Britain, France and Germany against pushing for the Islamic republic to be referred to the Security Council over its nuclear programme, saying such a step would spark "a crisis over which the Europeans would have no control". Speaking ahead of the Geneva talks, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi threatened that Iran would take "unilateral" action if it faced diplomatic punishment.
The question arises as to how what was seen as an excellent Iranian-EU package of trade and cooperation incentives in return for "objective guarantees" that Tehran will not develop nuclear weapons was turned into this deadlock. According to the Iranians, negotiations went well in their first stage. They claim, however, that the Europeans came under intense pressures from the Americans to politicise the talks, demanding that Iran offers guarantees that it will reconsider its policies in the Middle East, especially with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
According to Mohamed Sadeq Al-Husseini, a noted Iranian analyst, the Europeans were very positive towards, and confident of, the Iranians at the beginning of the talks. At first they only demanded technical guarantees that Iranian nuclear activities would remain directed towards peaceful purposes. "Negotiations, however, returned back to square one after the US interfered casting doubts on Iran's intentions and pushing the Europeans to demand from Iran political rather than technical guarantees," Al-Husseini charged.
Another sticking point in negotiations is that while Iran insists that its suspension of uranium enrichment is a voluntary and temporarily move, they fear that the US, and apparently the Europeans, are seeking that Iran fully halt all nuclear activities the same way Libya did, a demand that Iran totally rejects.
Iranian fears stem from Washington's consistent rejection of suggestions presented by Tehran as to how to guarantee that its nuclear activities will remain for peaceful purposes only, in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iranian suggestions that Russia enrich the uranium that Iran has converted, or that it enriches the uranium in Iran but with the full European cooperation -- and eventually European supervision -- were both rejected by the US.
Al-Husseini deems that these refusals have to do with Washington's desire to redraw its relations with Tehran. According to Al-Husseini, "Washington is betting on taming Iran" into accepting US reform plans in the Middle East, including halting its support of Hizbullah and redefining its policy on the Palestinian issue.
The Iranians, however, do not stand powerless. Whether the timing was pre-planned or not, yesterday's round of nuclear talks with the EU comes just few days after a remarkable three-day first visit to Iraq by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, marking a new chapter in Iranian- Iraqi relations. Tehran's message is clear: the Americans should take note of Tehran's influence in Iraq while dealing with Iranians in general, and with the nuclear file in particular.
"It is simply a message that reminds the Americans that we [Iranians] have a natural powerful presence in Iraq due to geopolitical and geostrategic reasons and thus you [Americans] have to take note of that. This will help Iran alleviate US pressure over its nuclear file," Al-Husseini said.
Through its foreign minister, the Iranians conveyed another message to the Americans; that they are seeking to cooperate with the Americans in a new Iraq, rather than turning the country into a US-Iranian battlefield. "We do not want Iraq to be a place for us to settle our differences with the United States," Kharrazi, whose visit came just two days after that of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said.
Agreeing that the government of former president Saddam Hussein was the aggressor in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, both countries welcomed "a period of friendship and peace". Further agreement was met that Iran would open consulates in Basra and Karbala. Iraq, in turn, would open consular offices in Khorramshahr and Kermanshah. It is expected that the logistics will be concluded in two months.
In all likelihood, bilateral ties will soon be stirred towards strategic, constructive and beneficial cooperation. Official statements acknowledge that "bilateral security cooperation" between Iran and Iraq has expanded, underlining that the enhancement of security in Iraq is a top priority. Both sides also decided to establish an "Iran-Iraq joint high commission" chaired by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari and Iranian Vice-President Mohamed Reza Aref, to help direct their economic and political relationship.
Meanwhile, Iran faces expected changes in the coming weeks following scheduled presidential elections. Al-Husseini predicts that this will only add to the cagey quality of Iranian-EU negotiations: "I believe both the Iranians and the Europeans will make use of the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, and the changes that might occur, as a chance to take their time in deciding on the [nuclear] issue. I do not expect groundbreaking results to come out of [this week's] meetings."


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