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Iran-EU Talks Enter Last Chance Saloon

DW staff / AFP (nda)May 22, 2005

Germany, Britain and France will attempt once more to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment at a meeting in Brussels next week. However, the Islamic state is calling the summit "Europe's last chance".

Straw, Fischer and Barnier meet the Iranians on TuesdayImage: AP

The European Union will try to coax Iran back from the nuclear brink this week, warning Tehran it could be hauled before the UN Security Council if it carries out a threat to resume key atomic activities.

The Islamic state -- suspected by the United States of wanting to build atomic weapons -- is calling the meeting "the last chance for the Europeans" to come up with something worth bargaining for.

But the pressure on Iran is multiplied by Washington, waiting to direct its diplomatic fire straight at Tehran if the EU talks fail. "The bar for Iran must be set very high because of its history of deception" in years of concealing its nuclear program, said Nicholas Burns, US under secretary for political affairs, last week.

The talks will bring together Iran's top nuclear negotiators with the so-called EU-3 -- the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, along with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The exact timing and location of the talks is unclear, but diplomats say the most likely is a meeting of senior officials in Brussels on Tuesday before the full ministerial talks on Wednesday in Geneva.

Enrichment resumed after halt

After suspending nuclear activities late last year, Tehran recently said that it intends to resume some of the work it brought to a halt under an agreement reached with Britain, France and Germany last November.

But Tehran insists its bid to master the full nuclear fuel cycle, including enriching uranium, is aimed at generating electricity and is a right for a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

With tensions mounting, Iranian negotiator Hossein Moussavian has raised the rhetoric to new levels. He said last week that if the talks fail, uranium conversion work -- a precursor to enrichment -- being carried out at a plant near the central city of Isfahan could restart before the presidential election on June 17. "The decision on resuming activities at Isfahan is irreversible," he said.

Carrot and stick approach ineffective so far

EU Iran Atomstreit Treffen in Brüssel
Image: AP

In dealing with Iran's clerical regime, the EU has held the carrot; offering trade, security and technological incentives. In the background, the United States has wielded the stick, leaving "all options on the table" although its more overt threats of the past have receded recently.

In its letter on May 11 inviting Iran back to the negotiating table, the EU warned the regime it could be heading into dangerous, uncharted territory. "It would bring the negotiating process to an end. The consequences beyond could only be negative for Iran," the letter from the EU three Britain, France and Germany read.

Europeans ponder vital next move

Wahlen in Iran Javier Solana in Teheran
Mohsen Mirdamadi, right, a reformist and who heads the parliamentary commission on foreign affairs and national security, talks with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, left, at Iran's Parliament building in Tehran.Image: AP

Despite these options, diplomats believe there is little room for maneuver. "The Europeans could try to put a bit more on the table, but they will not go back on their core demand, a halt in enrichment. They have an agreement on this with the Americans, and cannot afford to go back," said one.

If Iran resumes its suspended nuclear activities, the matter is likely to go first to the board of governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's Vienna-based nuclear watchdog.

From there, it would be sent to the UN Security Council -- although that does not automatically mean sanctions. Given the need for consensus, with nations like Russia and China, the Council may just issue a warning.

Is stand-off an election tactic?

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a savvy pragmatist who has attempted to make contacts with the United States in the past, attends a press conference, after registering as a presidential candidate at the Interior Ministry in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 11, 2005. Iran's presidential election will take place June 17.Image: AP

The unknown factor is how much the tensions can be put down to Iranian electioneering. Amid the preparations for next month's presidential poll, state television is running announcements selling the benefits of nuclear power to the public.

According to Dr Ali Ansari, at Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, the regime has to appear tough before the poll. "I think that nothing really substantial is going to happen until the Iranian elections are over," he said. "They're going to try to delay things."