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Opinion: Much Ado About Nothing in Iran

Iranian technicians are expected to remove the UN seals to a nuclear power plant. The EU is unhappy but DW's Mideast expert Peter Philipp doesn't think that the move should change negotiation strategies.

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Outgoing President Khatami (center) at the Isfahan nuclear plant

The announcement by the Iranian government that it would resume uranium ore conversion, just when an agreement with the EU seemed so close, seems irrational and counterproductive. Nine months ago, Tehran had stopped work on its nuclear program in an effort to improve the negotiating atmosphere with the EU.

Despite the apparent external motives of the resumption of uranium processing, the mullahs are quite clearly playing a domestic game of politics.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iran's president-to-be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The current president, Mohamed Khatami, will be vacating his post by the middle of this week and is handing over the reins to his conservative successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (photo). In such an important matter in Iran, Khatami didn't want to leave an impression that he had succumbed to external pressure.

Not only does Khatami look strong, but he prevents Ahmadinejad from having to announce that Iran would resume uranium conversion, and hence, only confirm to the West that the new president is a hardcore conservative.

EU image tarnished by move?

In light of the decision to reopen the Isfahan nuclear conversion facility, it would look as if Tehran has duped the EU. Europe, led by the EU-3 of Britain, France and Germany, have invested a great amount of time and energy to try and prove to the United States that negotiating is a better tactic than saber rattling. Then, just as the EU was ready to present their newest proposals, Tehran decided to play hardball.

Yet, if the EU takes a step back, they will see that the Iranian threats by no means mean an end to the negotiation process.

Iran Luftaufnahme vom Atomanlage

Satellite photo of Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) at Isfahan, Iran with tunnel entrances to the north of the facility

Iranian Foreign Minister Hamid Resa Asefi explicitly stated that processing would be taken up only at the Isfahan plant and not at Iran's largest nuclear facility, Natanz. In addition, uranium would not be enriched. Tehran said it is still willing to meet the Europeans at the negotiating table.

Of particular importance is the fact that the Islamic republic would continue its uranium processing under the eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

No nuclear weapons

The government in Tehran has always underscored the fact that they do not want to produce atomic weapons. Iran's latest announcement is, as unusual as it may seem, a way to get the EU to make its next move.

Since 2003, Britain, France and Germany have taken their time in offering their proposals. European negotiators continually demanded Tehran to extend the moratorium. But the Iranians only wanted to do that which is allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, namely conduct atomic research for peaceful purposes.

Mohamed El Baradei - IAEA Chef

Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency

If the West expects the leaders in Tehran to act in good faith, Europe will have to come a step closer and support Iran's bid for membership in the WTO and possibly more importantly, to push for the transfer of technology to Iran in the nuclear sector. The EU, after a long delay, wanted to accede to this demand but wanted to wait until Ahmadinejad assumed office. Tehran would have preferred an earlier announcement date.

The dispute could end up being a tempest in a teapot, however. Once the IAEA has addressed the issue, a few days will have passed. And even if the UN body should respond by forwarding the matter to the UN Security Council, it's likely that China, and even Russia, will veto the imposition of any sanctions against Iran.

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