Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex

Jan De Pauw
5 December 2007

The status and intentions of Iran's nuclear-energy plans are again at the top of the international agenda, and in a dramatic and unexpected way. The publication of the latest United States national-intelligence estimate (NIE) on 3 December 2007 - in the declassified digest released to the public - contained the striking assessment that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons programme in 2003 "in response to international pressure"; a judgment, moreover, backed with "high confidence".

The report, which gathers material from the US's sixteen leading intelligence agencies, does admit: "We do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." But the tenor of the report is - as has been instantly understood around the world - to challenge the narrative of an Iranian nuclear danger that the George W Bush administration and its supporters has assiduously been building, and to make more difficult the argument for armed confrontation with Iran as a way of resolving the perceived problem.

Jan De Pauw is a lecturer in cultural history and media at Erasmus Hogeschool, Brussels. His blog is here

Also by Jan De Pauw in openDemocracy:

"Iran and the Security Council: changing the dynamic" (31 May 2006)Iran's own reaction has, predictably, been both satisfied and combative: the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called the report's conclusions "a declaration of the Iranian people's victory against the great powers", while Tehran has also called on the US to abandon its plans to seek a new tranche of sanctions on Iran in the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, the head of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, has acknowledged that the verdict "opens a window of opportunity for Iran now because Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying they have not been working on a weapons programme at least for the last few years".

This single report has evidently changed the atmospherics in which the debate has for long been conducted, even if its key conclusion over Iran is hardly accepted by all interested parties (not least Israel). But when the dust settles, how much will have changed? Will the world know any more about Iran's "real" nuclear plans or intentions than before? To answer these questions, it is helpful to review the recent history of this contentious international issue, and in particular the attempts of leading interlocutors - the European Union as well as the IAEA and the United States - to deal with Iran.

The springtime of diplomacy

The weeks before the NIE report was released did not promise much in the way of diplomatic progress. Iran's new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili had at stroke annulled much of the work of his predecessor Ali Larijani, disappointed Europe's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, deepened suspicions over Iran's hardline agenda and kindled the idea of a third round of UN sanctions. In the west, there was outward support from Britain and France for the US's strong line at the Security Council, against equally routine reluctance from China and Russia. But at a meeting in Paris on 1 December 2007 of the European Union's troika on Iran - Britain, France and Germany, the "EU/E3" (or "EU3") - Germany this time seemed, if only faintly, to hesitate. The Iran nuclear issue seems to have an uncanny capacity to create tensions between supposed partners.

Indeed, Iran has been the strongest test-case of the European Union's nuclear non-proliferation strategy since its inauguration in June 2003. The strategy called for a broad approach to proliferation threats, including preventative measures (both both political and diplomatic) to be implemented through relevant international organisations, as well as coercive measures under Chapter VII of the UN charter and international law. The strategy is part of what has been called a policy of "effective multilaterism".

The first rumours about Iran's nuclear military ambitions emerged in 2002. By June 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency, after inspections at Natanz and Arak, confirmed Iran's fissile activities and recommended that Iran sign the additional protocol to the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (to which the country was and is a signatory). By October 2003 - lightning-speed in diplomatic terms - the EU signed an agreement with Tehran through the joint efforts of Britain, France, and Germany.

In this document - what came to be known as the Tehran agreement - Iran consented to suspending all enrichment activities and promised to sign the additional protocol; the quid pro quo for Tehran was further negotiations. This was considered a major diplomatic achievement for Europe: the premiere of an EU speaking with one voice and wielding "soft power" to good effect. The agreement effectively positioned the EU/E3 between the two main contenders - Iran and the United States - as well as strengthened the role of the IAEA.

By spring 2004, however, both the US and the IAEA independently denounced Iran's erratic behaviour with regard to the Tehran agreement. In September, Iran itself followed up its initial threats by effectively and publicly resuming its uranium-conversion activities. It is not improbable that pressure over the forthcoming (June 2005) general elections in Iran hardened then-president Mohammad Khatami's stance on his country's nuclear rights. Meanwhile, the US, under the spell of a highly divisive presidential election campaign, was becoming increasingly impatient about Iran's behaviour.

When the US demanded that Iran be referred to the Security Council, the EU/E3 rose to the challenge: again, it secured a deal with Iran in November 2004 that promised broader negotiations, economic benefits and technological assistance for Iran's civilian nuclear programme. But the pattern was repeated: by May 2005, this deal - the Paris agreement - was coming undone.

Until this point, Europe's interaction with Iran closely resembled its 1990s policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran: an inclusive and comprehensive strategy of relationship-building and economic engagement that might give Europe leverage over contentious issues such as human rights, freedom, torture, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. But in June 2005, the neo-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential election and inherited office from from the more moderate but disappointing Khatami. The surprise victory of the relatively unknown ex-mayor of Tehran was followed by a swift change of tone. Iran's interaction both with the EU/E3, and with the IAEA and the US, became more confrontational.

The sanctions spiral

The EU/E3 offered Ahmadinejad a framework for a long-term agreement that - amongst other things - proposed specific security guarantees, areas of cooperation, and long-term support for Iran's civil nuclear programme. The offer was promptly rejected and the talks between Iran and the EU broke down. Europe's lack of success, however, was compensated to some degree by its ability to convince Russia and China to refrain from using their veto to block an IAEA resolution on Iran's non-compliance with the IAEA safeguards agreement. But by this time, another threat was looming: multilateral sanctions, this time endorsed by the UN Security Council.

By January 2006, Iran had again resumed enrichment, and by February the country was effectively referred to the UN Security Council. By 29 March, Iran was given another deadline one month hence; this it ignored. A phase of clever manoeuvring all around briefly raised hopes of direct talks between Iran and the US in a multilateral setting; in large part, that too was an EU/E3 accomplishment, as was the extensive package of incentives put together by the EU/E3, China, Russia and the US offered to Iran in June 2006 by Europe's foreign-policy supremo, Javier Solana.

The July-August 2006 war in Lebanon and the contested victory of the Iran-backed Hizbollah movement left the regime in Tehran feeling sufficiently bolstered to dismiss Solana's proposals. In the feverish months of August-September 2006, the EU/E3 were granted the privilege of keeping up the appearance of a constructive dialogue. By October, even Solana acknowledged that "four months of intensive talks have brought no agreement on suspension" and that one "can't go on talking forever". The EU/E3 then submitted a draft resolution to the UN to curtail Iran by means of sanctions. After prolonged debate, and Russian and Chinese amendments, Resolution 1737 was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council on 23 December 2006.

A twist in the tale

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iranian politics and the nuclear issue:

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007)

Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's circle of power" (23 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)The twin electoral victories of Democrats in the United States (in the mid-term elections of November 2006) and reformers in Iran (in the local elections of December 2006) did not soften positions on either side. Indeed, by March 2007, a second round of UN sanctions was unanimously accepted; the rhetoric of war resounded ever louder; and the middle ground occupied by the EU/E3 tilted toward stronger (and by late 2007, possibly even unilateral) sanctions.

In this sense there has been a definite shift of approach in Europe's policy towards Iran. The stance of the "critical dialogue" period seems to have been exchanged for the second leg of its non-proliferation strategy: namely the implementation of coercive measures in the context of Chapter VII of the UN charter. Europe may have been consistent in relation to its own policy recommendations of diplomacy first, coercion later (or last); but with regard to another of its strategy's basic principles - the implementation and universalisation of existing disarmament and non-proliferation norms - it has been wholly unsuccessful. Europe's position as a putative mediator between the US and Iran has suffered as a result.

As a result, Europe's lack of leverage over American behaviour in the international arena has carried a cost, in three respects.

First, American support for Europe's diplomatic track has always been half-hearted; the George W Bush administration has never really taken unilateral military action towards Iran off the shelf (nor is this out of the question even after the NIE report of 3 December 2007). Throughout, Europe has never been able to secure a full diplomatic engagement from the US.

Second, the US's nuclear deal with India - an established nuclear-weapons state - was a signal to Iran that there really was nothing to be gained from compliance with the international community's demands.

Third, Europe's continued hesitation about America's proposed deployment of a missile-defence system in east-central Europe both soured relations with Russia (an important partner regarding UN Security Council decisions on Iran) and suggested that Europe in fact accepts the "truth" and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The EU/E3 thus gradually revealed itself as less a detached mediator and more America's coalition partner finally let out of the closet.

The margins for diplomacy have been narrowing since at least June 2005, and rumours and rhetoric of armed confrontation increasing. Throughout 2007, the path to war has seemed ever less avoidable. It is in this context that the US's latest national-intelligence estimate seems to many observers to offer almost miraculous deliverance.

Will it be so? The finding that, after all, Iran had already abandoned the military aspect of its nuclear programme in 2003, following increased diplomatic pressure, suggests that the history of the last five years - whose outlines are traced in this article - may have to be rewritten. The new NIE assessment certainly undermines the official line of imminent military threat, and potentially reconnects with the diplomatic approach favoured by most of the international community and the IAEA.

Yet, the implication of the foregoing analysis is that diplomatic advances or signs of progress in the long-running dispute between Iran and the west - especially the United States - are so often followed by severe setbacks. The best-case result may be that the intelligence assessment may reduce America's taste for war, fortify the next American president's conviction to stay on the diplomatic track, and re-establish Europe's locomotive role in designing a deal with Iran that - this time - will last. The worst-case result may be that the objective alliance between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Saeed Jalili and the Iranian neo-conservatives with their United States counterparts proves too strong and addictive to break. In either case, the tortuous diplomatic story of Iran, the United States, Europe over Iran's nuclear plans has a long way to go.

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