By R. Scott Billquist
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 26, 2005
GENEVA, May 25 -- European foreign ministers said Wednesday they had averted a crisis with Iran over its nuclear program, winning a tentative pledge from the Islamic republic to continue a freeze on sensitive work pending the resumption of negotiations this summer.
The agreement, reached in talks here, deferred immediate referral of the issue to the U.N. Security Council. The referral would have escalated pressure on Iran dramatically. Iran's pledge also allowed for a respite in efforts to reach a final, permanent deal under which Iran would get economic and diplomatic benefits in return for addressing Western concerns that its nuclear program is a cover for weapons development.
"Assuming this holds, it's a win-win outcome for now," said Clifford Kupchan, a specialist on Iran with the Eurasia Group, a research firm based in New York. "The talks go on, the suspension holds and the Iranians get proposals from the Europeans" about the specifics of the incentives.
Hassan Rouhani, the chief Iranian negotiator, told reporters after the talks that "we could come to a final agreement . . . within a reasonably short time." But he stressed that he would have to consult with the government in Tehran, which will decide whether to accept the terms.
In recent weeks, Iran threatened to resume some of the work that it had agreed to freeze last November in a preliminary deal negotiated in Paris. It contended that the Europeans had been slow in following up with promised incentives.
In Tehran earlier Wednesday, President Mohammad Khatami said, "We are ready to compromise, and we hope Europe makes its decision independently and not based on U.S. pressures."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters after the talks that the European side "outlined proposals to the Iranians as to our ideas for a long-term agreement provided by the Paris Agreement of last November. They said that they would take away and discuss them in Tehran."
Straw said the European side had agreed to submit detailed proposals in July or August about how it would reward the Iranians for agreeing to a permanent end to suspect aspects of its nuclear program. Meanwhile, the November agreement suspending controversial work "remains in force," he said.
Ever since an Iranian dissident group exposed a secret research facility in Iran in 2002, the country's nuclear program has caused serious tensions with Western countries. Iran insists that the program is entirely aimed at electrical power generation; a two-year U.N. investigation has turned up no proof that weapons work is the true purpose.
Britain, France and Germany have taken the lead in trying to negotiate safeguards against military use. The United States is not an official party to the talks but has expressed support for them and stressed that the matter should go to the Security Council if the Iranians do not agree to a permanent end to sensitive parts of the program.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Agence France-Presse news service on Wednesday that the United States was "in very close consultation and discussion with our European colleagues at several levels, and I think that it would be a very good thing if the Iranians . . . continue the negotiations on the deal that's before them."
She raised the possibility that the United States would withdraw its veto of Iranian efforts to join the World Trade Organization as a reward for Iranian cooperation. "We will see where we are in the negotiations when that decision has to be made," she said.
Straw was joined in Geneva by his German and French counterparts, Joschka Fischer and Michel Barnier, and the E.U. foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. They held three hours of discussions with Rouhani, who is chief of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.
In a letter sent last Saturday to the three European foreign ministers, Rouhani wrote that Iran wanted to avoid a breakdown of the talks and move quickly toward an agreement that would lead to better relations and respect Iran's rights under the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to have nuclear fuel for electrical power generation.
Straw characterized the negotiations as "difficult and complex," but added, "so far the negotiations have frankly been better than the alternative."
Kupchan said the talks had a good outcome for the Bush administration because "it gives them time to get their ducks in a row" should the negotiations with Iran reach another crisis point in the fall.