Iran risks overplaying nuclear hand
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“Yes in general but no on every detail” is how Iran responded to a United Nations-backed deal on its nuclear programme that world powers were hoping would buy them time to settle, more permanently, the whole dispute.
The Iranian attitude (it was not even a final response, and it came days after a deadline set by the International Atomic Energy Agency) left western powers fuming, and the US, which has been unusually patient, probably more disappointed than most.
But while Washington is a newcomer to negotiations with Iran, no one else was shocked. More surprising would have been a swift and outright positive reaction that would have had Tehran shipping, by the end of the year, about two-thirds of its low- enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into higher-grade medical isotopes for cancer treatment.
Instead, Tehran says it wants to send the LEU in staggered stages while also buying more from elsewhere to replenish its stockpile, which negates the whole purpose of the pact – to remove this uranium and ensure it is not enriched to levels suitable for nuclear weapons.
As European diplomats know all too well, once negotiations are offered, Iran likes to string them out for as long as possible. That seemed clear to them during the negotiations in Vienna last month. Only the Obama administration, so eager for progress on engagement with Tehran, left the talks in a more upbeat mood.
There was some basis for optimism. Iran had accepted the deal “in principle” three weeks earlier. But at the time, Iran was in a bind, having been forced to reveal that it had been building a second uranium enrichment plant in violation of IAEA rules.
By co-operating, Tehran had changed the subject, steering the talks away from the new plant and UN demands for a total suspension of enrichment activities, and instead towards a fuel deal.
Since then, Iran has had every interest in trying to prolong the negotiations. At the same time, voices in parliament quickly rose against the deal, and they included that of Ali Larijani, the speaker and rival to Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the president.
This attitude may have been a reflection of what Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, wanted to hear. But it could also be an attempt to undermine the beleaguered Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.
It is important to keep in mind that the turmoil over the June presidential election in Iran is still being played out, with the legitimacy of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, accused of stealing the vote, and the supreme leader who backed him, seriously compromised. Indeed, the regime’s opponents say the president is desperate for any agreement with the west to boost his own legitimacy.
There are other factors, too. Iran’s rulers are obsessively paranoid about the west. Though they court Russian support, they are suspicious of Moscow as much as France, the two countries that are supposed to provide them with the new fuel.
For Ayatollah Khamenei, meanwhile, rushing into a UN-drafted deal would have been a step towards engagement with the Obama administration, something which many say he is neither interested in nor ready for. Only last week, he was lamenting that his favoured “Death to America” slogan was being eliminated from popular rallies.
Whatever Iran’s reasoning, however, it risks overplaying its hand dangerously. For once, it faces a united international front, with Russia backing the UN deal enthusiastically and asking Tehran to sign it. Washington, moreover, has been remarkably tolerant but its patience will end.
If the nuclear fuel deal is off the table, the subject will change again, returning to international demands for a complete halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. The simple fact that Iran’s rulers often forget is that negotiations are based on compromise – not on imposing Iranian demands.
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