Friday, June 02, 2006

Breakthrough or stalemate?

Breakthrough or stalemate?

Jun 1st 2006
From The Economist print edition

America promises to talk, if Iran stops enriching uranium

IN A striking shift of policy, the American administration this week said it would join direct talks with Iran—provided that the ruling mullahs once more suspend their enrichment of uranium. As The Economist went to press, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, were meeting in Vienna to put final touches to a new set of proposals meant to persuade Iran to desist from its suspected plan to build a nuclear bomb.

As expected, the Iranians' first response was to dig their toes in and refuse to stop enriching uranium—in which case, on paper, nothing will have changed. “We will not give up our nation's natural right [to enrich],” said its foreign minister. “But we are ready to hold talks over mutual concerns. If the United States is interested in changing the existing situation, it should change its behaviour and behave properly and logically.” That is not the end of it, however. The Iranians are likely, in the next few days, to hint at a range of concessions, perhaps even on the question of enrichment. An argument may be going on in Tehran. The fiery populism of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may not be echoed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say.

In any event, the American démarche has altered the diplomatic mood. The Iranians, who have been almost cockily confident that they could continue to fend off the threat of UN sanctions while quietly continuing their nuclear research, have been put on the diplomatic defensive. The game of cat and mouse that has been played out for the past three years will not end soon, but it will be harder for the Iranians brazenly to ignore the demands of a more united international front.

In the short run, the American move should strengthen the cohesion of the team that has been trying to dissuade Iran from seeking a capacity for building a nuclear bomb, which they could probably achieve within three to ten years. The trio of European countries that have been acting closely together—Britain, France and Germany—has gradually come to the conclusion that only America's power, in terms of carrots as well as sticks, could bring the Iranians into line. The European Union's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, this week bemoaned the fact that America and Iran “had spent 20 years not talking to each other”. The Germans, who have been getting on better with the Americans since Angela Merkel became chancellor, have asked President George Bush to change tack. At home, prominent Democrats and a clutch of influential Republicans, such as Senator John McCain, have also urged him to do so, despite his reluctance to talk to a state he still deems a leading sponsor of global terrorism.

But America's decision to offer direct talks may be meant most of all to nudge Russia and China into agreeing that, if Iran still fails to co-operate, UN sanctions should be imposed on the Islamic Republic. Until now, Russia and China, both with big commercial links to Iran, have been deeply reluctant to endorse sanctions. They will still be loth to do so. But it will be harder for them to continue to shield the Iranians diplomatically, if the Iranians refuse to respond in an amiable manner.


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