Europe Plays Nuclear Poker With Iran

The Iranian government’s threat to resume limited nuclear activities after the European Union (EU) missed a deadline on Sunday to offer new incentives is clearly part of a calculated attempt to mount pressure on the EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany).

The EU-3 has rebuffed Iran’s call and warned against "any unilateral move" on Tehran’s part that would be "unnecessary and damaging" and could "make it very difficult to continue" negotiations.

The threats are being seen by neutral observers in India, which has just signed a nuclear energy pact with the United States, as part of a cynical game of nuclear poker now being played over Iran.

At the heart of the moves and countermoves is the changed situation in Iran after the surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president and the West’s great discomfort at dealing with someone who has been termed a "hardline" Islamist.

If the nuclear issue is not resolved very soon, the danger will grow and the nuclear poker game could easily get out of control. The immediate risk is that the EU and the U.S. might push Iran into an intransigent stand by threatening to take the controversy to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions against Tehran.

Iran has refused to extend the July 31 deadline agreed with the EU-3 last November, when Tehran suspended its nuclear activities. This was done on condition that the European states would make proposals that give Iran the incentive not to pursue its nuclear program, which it says is entirely for "peaceful" purposes.

The EU-3 requested Iran to extend the deadline for six days. "This timespan might appear trivially short, but it is not," says Hamid Ansari, a former Indian ambassador Iran and a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy think-tank in New Delhi.

"Probably the EU-3 wants to hear a pronouncement on the nuclear issue from the new president-elect, who will assume office on Aug. 6. And the Iranians do not want to oblige the EU-3."

It was not an accident that the EU "missed" the July 31 deadline. According to reports, "which appear reliable and solid," says Ansari, the EU-3 had formulated a package of proposals on the assumption that a "moderate" like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would be elected to Iran’s presidency.

But their plans went awry when Ahmedinejad pipped Rafsanjani at the polls.

The package reportedly includes an assured supply of lightly enriched uranium fuel for Iran’s proposed nuclear power stations, lifting of barriers on the sale of technology to Iran to help enhance its oil and gas output.

Thrown in is the promise of a serious security dialogue leading to the promise of a no-aggression agreement that would end the a hostile posture by the U.S. toward Iran – which President George W. Bush has designated a part of the "Axis of Evil."

The holding back of this package itself appears related to a hardening of the U.S. posture vis-à-vis Iran since Ahmedinejad’s election and also the visit to Tehran of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari seeking to repair some of the damage caused to mutual relations since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Washington is not just looking to mount pressure on Iran in favor of "democracy" but may actually be contemplating an armed attack.

The U.S. magazine The Nation reported on July 22 that "Bush has given the Defense Department approval to develop scenarios for an attack if Tehran proceeds with uranium-enrichment activities viewed in Washington as a precursor to the manufacture of nuclear munitions."

In the article, by The Nation‘s defense correspondent Michael T. Klare, who is also professor peace and world security at Hampshire College, pointed out that top officials in the Bush administration have argued in favor of military action again Iran even before Ahmedinejad election.

According to The American Conservative, U.S. contingency plans involve the use of conventional and even nuclear weapons against over 400 targets in Iran.

Iran, for its part, has made a clean, physical separation between two components of its 18-year-old nuclear enrichment program, which it had kept secret. Its enrichment plant is located at Natanz. But the factory that is supposed to feed it is located in Isfahan and is designed to convert solid uranium oxides into hexafluoride gas.

At the moment, Iran is only threatening to begin operating the Isfahan factory –one clean step away from enrichment itself. In any case, Iran says it wants to enrich uranium to a low level for use in nuclear power reactors. (Normally, power reactors burn 2 to 4 percent enriched uranium, in which the proportion of its fissile isotope U-235 has been raised to that percentage up from the naturally occurring 0.7 percent).

Iran has consistently affirmed that it has a right to acquire and develop nuclear technology for peaceful uses and that it will never pursue weapons of mass destruction.

"In this regard, all major Iranian leaders are unanimous; even Rafsanjani could not have changed the strong consensus that exists in Iran on nuclear policy," says Gulshan Dietl, professor of West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the Indian capital.

"That consensus is that Iran must pursue nuclear power although it will not make nuclear weapons, at least not yet. There is no reason to believe that there are major differences on this," Dietl said.

However, the U.S. suspects that Iran, which has oil and gas reserves, wants to enrich uranium only to make nuclear weapons.

It is another matter that the U.S. is not a state with merely suspected nuclear activity and a weapons program, but a declared nuclear weapons state, and that it developed nuclear power despite its petroleum reserves.

The EU-3 have been trying to mediate between the U.S. and Iran, but their efforts could fail if the U.S. takes a tough, unhelpful stand to isolate Iran, driving it to harden its own posture. That could bring two years of difficult EU-Iran negotiations to a sorry end.

Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which permits the pursuit of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes like generating power. It has a strong legal case for developing a peaceful nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.

Iran’s case has been further buttressed by the exceptional agreement the U.S. signed with India just two weeks ago. Under it, Washington has recognized India as a "responsible state with advance nuclear technology," agreed to resume civilian nuclear trade with it, and also to help "adjust" the international nuclear control regime to enable wide-ranging civilian transactions with India.

Iran, predictably, responded to this deal by accusing the Bush administration of double standards and undermining the NPT. Iran says "the U.S. signed this agreement despite the fact that India, unlike Iran, has not signed the NPT."

An Iranian official has been quoted as saying: "India is looking after its own national interests. We cannot criticize them for this. On the one hand, [the U.S.] are depriving an NPT member from having peaceful technology, but at the same time they are cooperating with India, which is not a member of the NPT, to their own advantage."

Such criticism might complicate matters in major Western capitals and also in the 44-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). The U.S. will find hard to justify an inflexible and hostile posture toward Iran. And the EU-3 will find it even more difficult to win this round of nuclear poker.

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.