After Vienna, Both Sides Can Tally Their Gains
Saturday, June 3, 2006
VIENNA, June 2 -- Both Iran and the United States this week could claim significant gains, but the prospects for a solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse remain uncertain.
Iranian officials secretly approached White House officials in 2003, seeking a dialogue, but the offer was swiftly dismissed. Three years later, Iran finds itself in a much stronger position -- oil prices are at record highs, its nuclear program has made technological strides and the United States suddenly wants a seat at the negotiating table.
For the United States, the agreement reached with other world powers in Vienna on Thursday night appears to commit its partners to a tougher approach if renewed negotiations fail to take off. For years, the Bush administration has warned of the Iranian threat, but its concerns were belittled or ignored as yet another example of American hyperbole. Now, however, Washington has persuaded Russia, China and European allies to agree to the same red line -- Iran must suspend its nuclear experiments before discussions on rewarding that behavior can commence. U.S. officials believe the deal puts Iran on the defensive.
The key to winning this agreement was the Bush administration's about-face this week about talking to Iran, diplomats said. Although conservative supporters have attacked the decision as appeasement, administration officials insist it was not a bad bet because it is unclear whether Iran will take this opportunity. Thus, they say, the United States will have demonstrated it is willing to exhaust every avenue of diplomacy without having to actually meet with the Iranians.
U.S. officials insist they want the negotiations to succeed, and in fact they suggest they made this move because they concluded the Europeans could not succeed by themselves. Rice, who flew to Washington from Vienna on Friday, said it was possible that at some point she might sit across from the Iranian foreign minister in a negotiating session.
A commitment for tougher action at the U.N. Security Council has long eluded the United States. The administration's efforts on Iran tend to be viewed through the prism of Iraq, forcing the administration to repeatedly demonstrate that it is committed to diplomacy. Russian officials, for instance, have always been skeptical of sanctions, fearing they would backfire and ultimately lead toward war.
As part of the agreement, the world powers settled on a range of possible sanctions. Iranian officials will see that list when they are briefed by European officials on the agreement made by the five veto-holding members of the Security Council and Germany.
After the announcement of the agreement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made no mention of the tough measures in the package and instead emphasized the positive incentives in it, such as aid for Iran's nuclear program, a path to membership in the World Trade Organization and increased trade and investments. Lavrov asserted last month that "sometimes a big carrot can serve as a stick."
In past years, Iran has discovered how successful it can be when it does nothing. The sweeteners to give up its program have only gotten better as it has remained intransigent, while its nuclear program has moved forward rapidly. Former Iranian negotiator Hassan Rowhani recently gave a speech in which he said the negotiations with the Europeans, which meandered for several years, gave crucial breathing space to Iran's efforts to enhance its mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle.
U.S. officials hope the Vienna agreement will convince Iran that that strategy will no longer succeed. Some officials expect Iran to respond tentatively to the new initiative, perhaps offering to return to the talks for something that falls just short of a full suspension. That could strain the agreement reached in Vienna, especially if the United States tries to push for an escalating series of resolutions at the Security Council. Russia has refused to consider passage of a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which would authorize the use of force, agreeing only to a subsection of Chapter VII that does not refer to force.
U.S. officials said they believe the key world powers are united behind the goal of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon -- and also the strategy of offering Iran the choice between cooperation and confrontation. This made it easier for the United States to shift course and announce it was willing to join the talks. But U.S. officials also realize that Iran appears on track to have a 3,000-centrifuge cascade for enriching uranium by the end of the year, a significant leap from the 164-centrifuge system it now possesses.
The agreement reached in Vienna this week does not ensure that Iran will not cross that threshold.