The EU and Iran have once again begun discussing a trade agreement. But it isn't easy: Iran is still suspected of developing nuclear weapons.
Talks on arms reduction took place in December
At the start of a meeting in Brussels between the EU and Iran this week, officials from both countries had to feel each other out, to see what, if anything, could be salvaged from trade talks broken off in June 2002.
The result of this week's meeting was an agreement to come together again in two months' time. A potential trade accord is seen by the EU as a reward for Tehran, should the country keep the reins of its nuclear weapons development program pulled tightly in.
Meanwhile, Iranian officials on Thursday only allowed UN weapons inspectors restricted access to a military compound the United States suspects of being connected to a secret program for developing atomic weapons.
In late November, after much high-profile discussion and debate, the UN International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) in Vienna determined that Iran was complying with an agreement to stop enriching uranium, which could be used for developing nuclear weapons.
U.N. nuclear inspectors at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna
"As long as Iran does not pursue its atomic weapons program, it can count on improved relations with the EU," said EU Commisioner for Foreign Relations Benita Ferrero Waldner on Tuesday in Brussels.
In December, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Charrasi had said the atomic program would only be suspended as long as trade talks with the EU showed progress.
Nonetheless, on Thursday Iranian officials limited the access of weapons inspectors to a military compound in Parchin, Iran. Iran accused the UN weapons inspectors of spying during the inspection, Reuters news service reported.
"We are vigilant" the head of the atomic program talks, Hussein Musawian, told the Iranian news agency Mehr. Inspectors were allowed onto the grounds of the compound but not into any buildings.
In terms of the EU-Tehran trade talks, one of the goals is to eventually lay down a legal basis for a relationship between Teheran and Brussels, which has not existed since the Shah fell from power in 1979. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that has no cooperation agreement with the EU.
The trade agreement is aimed at encouraging Iran to undertake reforms, with the eventual integration of Iran into the World Trade Organization an ultimate goal. On a purely economic basis, the country is well capable of WTO entry, EU officials say. But until now, the United States had blocked that entry on political grounds.
As part of the trade accords, already low import duties from Iran into the EU should be made permanent, and if possible lowered. For its part, the EU expects tariff reductions and the granting of more legal security to investors.
Because of its relatively strong economic growth and need for investment, Iran is an interesting market for the European Union, experts say. European firms currently deliver machinery, vehicles and chemicals to Iran. Oil companies are interested in exploiting Iranian oil and gas fields. Volkswagen is bringing a small car out on the Iranian market; the parts will be made in Brazil but assembled in Iran.
The United States is distrustful of the trade talks; Washington has repeatedly expressed doubts that Iran has permanently stopped its atomic weapons program. And Teheran has already broken promises made during talks in the autumn of 2003.
After Iran's Islamic revolution, the United States broke ties with Iran; US President George W. Bush named it as part of the "Axis of Evil" due to its support of terrorist groups and the suspected atomic weapons development. The European Union, on the other hand, has long taken a more moderate course with Teheran, claiming the 70 million Iranians are needed for geostrategic stability in the turbulent region.
In parallel talks with the EU commission, Great Britain, France and Germany have been talking with Iran since mid-December, over an agreement to stop uranium enrichment. Should the IAEO atomic energy commission agree that Iran has been secretly working on closed-circuit atomic energy, the EU said the talks will come to a halt. But for now, EU officials said, the plan is to continue talks at bimonthly meetings.