With Us or against Us-Iran Talks Tough: Any Diplomatic Situation between Two Countries in the Middle East Is Invariably More Complex and Dynamic Than Meets the Eye. the Matter of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions Is No Exception

By Seymour, Richard | The Middle East, February 2006 | Go to article overview
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With Us or against Us-Iran Talks Tough: Any Diplomatic Situation between Two Countries in the Middle East Is Invariably More Complex and Dynamic Than Meets the Eye. the Matter of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions Is No Exception


Seymour, Richard, The Middle East


USUALLY SIMPLIFIED TO A DIPLOMATIC conflict between Iran on one side and the United States and Europe on the other, the facts are that the most prominent issue exercising political and strategic minds in corridors of power the world over is a game of high stakes that Tehran is playing patiently.

In a nutshell, the United States and Europe suspect Iran of going ahead with its own nuclear programme with the intention of developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies this and claims its programme is being developed for purely peaceful purposes, which it has every right to do.

The matter would have been settled long ago had the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) been allowed to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities. That access has been severely limited, fuelling suspicion and raising tension.

Unlike the war in Iraq, Iran's nuclear programme has united, not divided the US and Europe, with France and Germany playing a key role in discussions with Tehran. Between the two sides, playing devil's advocate is Russia (see page 26).

In 2001, Russian president, Vladimir Putin, declared his intention to sell weapons and nuclear energy technology (for peaceful purposes) to Iran. This went against a prior agreement with the Americans in which Russia committed itself to not trading in arms with the Persian state (though Russia had, by that time, already backed out of the agreement).

This elicited an instant and uncompromising response from Washington which regards Iran as a 'terrorist' state.

According to Russia, none of the weapons sold to Iran were of a nature that contravened its international obligations regarding the trade in arms. It added that a militarily secure Iran was vital for the stability of the region.

It is also true, however, that Russia's arms industry was then, and is now, in desperate need of exports. Such, too, is the case for the Russian nuclear industry, which is dependent on Iran's nuclear programme going ahead for lucrative future contracts.

With this at the forefront of their minds, Moscow has been working feverishly on a plan to please all parties. Its proposal was to form a company with Iran that would enrich uranium in Russia, which would then be transported to Iran's nuclear facilities.

Iranians were seeking a compromise that would allow them to enrich some uranium inside their own borders, which rather defeats the purpose of the original plan.

For what it was worth, the plan now appears to be in tatters. Tehran has rejected the scheme dismissing it as poorly thought out and flawed. And this month, it was announced that research into the Islamic Republic's nuclear energy programme has resumed.

This prompted an ordinarily guarded IAEA chief inspector, Mohamed El Baradei, to declare his patience with Iran had run out, which is explosive diplomatic speak. It seems inevitable now that the matter will be referred to the UN Security Council. But where does this leave Russia?

Iran's choice of Russia as an ally is a canny one. Not only are Russia's nuclear industry and ageing defence industries dependent on Iranian contracts, the country holds an important veto on the Security Council, which it has used to protect its interests in the past and will undoubtedly do so again. With the US military still committed to the Iraqi and Afghanistan campaigns, resources will simply not stretch to a conflict with Iran. Nor is it likely that a war-weary and cynical public on both sides of the Atlantic would stand for such a course of action.

Sanctions are likely to be vetoed by Russia. In reality the whole issue of sanctions as an effective policy has lost much of its appeal among the international community after long-term measures against Iraq served to weaken the general population, thereby strengthening the hand of the then administration.

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With Us or against Us-Iran Talks Tough: Any Diplomatic Situation between Two Countries in the Middle East Is Invariably More Complex and Dynamic Than Meets the Eye. the Matter of Iran's Nuclear Ambitions Is No Exception
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