Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Sunday, November 30, 2003

Iran poses test for newfound Western unity

Like Iran, the United States and Europe face a test in the wake of a nuclear compromise reached in Vienna this week. If Teheran does not abide by commitments to eschew atomic weapons, will the West follow through with continued pressure, even sanctions?


Like Iran, the United States and Europe face a test in the wake of a nuclear compromise reached in Vienna this week.

If Teheran does not abide by commitments to eschew atomic weapons, will the West follow through with continued pressure, even sanctions?

Some doubt it.

Recent revelations about Iran's 18-year nuclear programme cover-up have heightened concerns about the Islamic republic's atomic ambitions. In that sense, there is growing consensus.

After bitter debates over invading Iraq that pitted the United States against France and Germany, Thursday's resolution on Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, reflected a new unity.

The IAEA's compromise between Europeans and a more hard-line United States condemned Teheran for covering up sensitive atomic research and warned that any future breach of non-proliferation obligations will not be tolerated.

Still, there remain competing visions - within the Bush administration, as well as between it and US allies - over how to balance carrots and sticks in dealing with oil-rich Iran, one of the most important countries in the Middle East.

"My concern is that the Europeans don't have a stomach for dealing with Iran on a very strong basis at this point," said Peter Brookes, a former Pentagon official with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Robert Einhorn, a leading non-proliferation specialist, said the important thing is "whether the Europeans are prepared to join with the United States in confronting Iran with a stark choice, between being a pariah with nuclear weapons and a law-abiding international citizen."

"If the Iranians continue to behave poorly, then the Europeans have to join with us in sending a clear message that this is unacceptable, and if Iran wants better relations with the rest of the world, it's got to pull the plug definitely on its nuclear weapons programme. I don't believe Iran has yet done that," added Einhorn, a former senior State Department official who is now senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

The IAEA stopped short of reporting Iran to the UN Security Council - which could have imposed sanctions - as the United States demanded over French, British and German objections.

But the IAEA warned that in the event of future breaches, it would meet immediately to consider "all options," including Security Council action.

Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty years ago and as such vowed to forgo nuclear weapons.

But Washington believes it has used an energy programme to hide nuclear arms development, including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. Teheran denies that allegation.

US officials, key Europeans and many analysts portrayed the IAEA outcome as a reasonable compromise.

It puts pressure on Teheran to co-operate with the international community while seeking a swift international response if more Iranian violations are uncovered, they said.

But Henry Sokolski of the Non-proliferation Education Centre said the "jury is still out" on what the IAEA resolution means and how it will work.

He fears the trigger in the agreement requiring the IAEA to consider "all options" in the event of future Iranian non-proliferation violations will unravel. As with Iraq and its alleged weapons of mass destruction, there could be "endless debate about what constitutes actionable concerns," he said.

It may not take long to reach a new crisis point. New information, including evidence of new facilities, is expected to turn up in the next few months showing Iran is in violation of its nuclear commitments, a US official said.

If that happens, France, Britain and Germany - who offered Teheran nuclear technology in return for compliance - will be so embarrassed they will join the United States in bringing the issue to the Security Council, some experts argue.

But US officials said they do not know for sure whether the Europeans, who have favoured engagement with Iran over confrontation, would support UN sanctions.

Already there is a dispute over what activities Iran told the Europeans it would suspend, one US official said.

Some US officials and analysts, while endorsing the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, say a broader, more nuanced strategy is required because sanctions ensures confrontation, and makes an Iranian bomb more likely.

Washington's conventional wisdom has been that all Iranians are bent on ensuring the country has nuclear arms capability.

But Einhorn said revelations of Iran's nuclear activities and the IAEA condemnation has been a "rude awakening for some Iranians (who now believe) their interests are not well served by pursuing nuclear weapons."

An analyst close to the administration said the United States must "buy time" with Iran, hoping that if hardliners and moderates now leading the government cannot be persuaded to end the nuclear programme, a new younger generation, keen on ties with the West, eventually will.

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