New York Times
May 25, 2005
GENEVA, May 25 - The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany persuaded Iran on Wednesday to continue its freeze on nuclear activities, averting a diplomatic crisis that could have led to punitive international measures against Iran.
In exchange, the Europeans offered to present Iran with detailed, step-by-step proposals by early August at the latest on how to move toward consensus on the shape of Iran's nuclear program. Last November in Paris, Iran agreed to suspend all of its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities while it negotiated the economic, nuclear, political and security benefits it would receive.
Despite the progress on Wednesday, the Europeans and the Iranians remain far apart on their ultimate goals. The Europeans want to prolong the freeze in Iran's enrichment activities until it becomes permanent, doling out trade, political, economic and security rewards, including access to nuclear energy, along the way.
The Iranians, by contrast, insist the freeze is only temporary. Iranian officials have pointed out that they are not required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to freeze these activities and are doing so on a voluntary basis to show good will.
The Bush administration, which accuses Iran of secretly using its nuclear program to develop weapons, reacted with caution to the developments on Wednesday, reaffirming its support for the European effort, but reiterating its suspicion of Iran's motives.
"Iran hid its nuclear activity from the international community for two decades," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. "That is why we are skeptical about their activities."
If Iran accepts the European proposal, as expected, both sides will have bought some time, and the freeze on Iran's uranium conversion and enrichment activities will still be in place when Iranians go to the polls to elect a new president on June 17.
After three hours of negotiations that the Europeans and the Iranians described as very difficult, both sides claimed success.
"We continue to work in the spirit of Paris," the French foreign minister, Michel Barnier, told reporters after the meeting. "And from here on it will take us some weeks to make concrete proposals, particularly with the goal of putting in place a civilian program in Iran - exclusively civil - but other issues as well."
That statement suggested the Europeans were ready to present a concrete plan to satisfy Iran's demand that Europe help it gain access to nuclear reactors to generate electricity and a reliable nuclear fuel supply.
Hassan Rowhani, a cleric who is Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, said the meeting Wednesday was the first in which the Europeans had committed themselves to laying out in a timely fashion and in detail steps to a final agreement on Iran's nuclear program.
"This was important to us because all along one of our concerns has been that negotiations would be unduly prolonged," he told reporters.
To throw the weight of the entire 25-country European Union behind the process, Javier Solana, the union's foreign policy chief, also took part in the meeting.
In the meeting, Mr. Rowhani told the Europeans bluntly that if they were putting incentives on the table expecting Iran to accept a permanent halt to its enrichment activities, they were "going in the wrong direction," one of the Iranians said, on condition of anonymity.
He reiterated Iran's position to reporters, saying, "We will remain committed to all our promises and at the same time we want all the rights applicable to countries, members of the Nonproliferation Treaty."
The talks, the highest-level meeting between the sides in six months, were sought by the Europeans after Iran had threatened to resume work at a vast uranium-conversion plant in the city of Isfahan that has been idle, along with work at other sites.
The Europeans replied to the threat by warning Iran in a letter that restarting work at Isfahan would violate the Paris agreement and force them to support an American-led effort to refer Iran's case to the United Nations Security Council for possible punishment.
That prompted Mr. Rowhani to write back that while Iran was considering resuming operations in Isfahan, his country wanted to avoid a breakdown in the talks and to move quickly toward a final agreement with Europe that would acknowledge Iran's rights to nuclear energy and would improve relations.
On Wednesday, the Europeans took over a half-hour to outline their ideas and asked Iran to keep the nuclear freeze in place, one participant said on condition of anonymity. Mr. Rowhani asked more than once what specifically was being offered, and Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, finally asked for patience, saying Iran would lose nothing by waiting more two months.
One Iranian participant said, "What they put forward made it hard for us to say no."
Iranian officials have said repeatedly that they are under pressure in the run-up to their presidential election to show concrete results from their negotiations with the Europeans, and that if the Europeans did not deliver, they would be forced to restart the nuclear program.
Although negotiators on both sides said that the talks were difficult and at times extremely tense, they had agreed in advance to keep the talks free of threats.
"I'm happy that it didn't come to that," Mr. Fischer said after. But he stressed that serious differences remained, noting, "We are still searching for an agreement to bridge the differences." He said that "it's not a question of pessimism or optimism, but rather realism."
Asked what carrots the Europeans had offered as incentives, a European negotiator replied, "There were no carrots."
In a sign of willingness in some circles in Iran to preserve the nuclear accord and continue the negotiations, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who is considered the front-runner the election next month, was upbeat.
"I don't believe the negotiations will remain fruitless," Mr. Rafsanjani told German ZDF television in Tehran on Wednesday. "The negotiations are difficult and there is much scope for discussion."
Much to Iran's satisfaction, Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, noted that Iran had "reaffirmed its commitment to not seeking nuclear weapons," and he underscored that Iran's right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program remained in place.
The most difficult challenge for Iran remains to meet its commitment under the agreement to provide "objective guarantees," that is, clear proof, that its nuclear program can just be used for peaceful purposes. The Europeans insist that can be accomplished only by ending uranium enrichment and reprocessing altogether; the Iranians say that there are other means, including international inspections.
The Europeans, in turn, may find it difficult to deliver on some of the more ambitious rewards they have discussed with Iran, including nuclear reactors. Such technology depends on the cooperation of the United States, which is convinced Iran is secretly developing a nuclear weapon and wants Iran referred to the Security Council for possible sanctions if it does not agree to give up the program permanently.