Hope shines through Iran's nuclear cloud

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 12:00am

Iran's agreement to suspend its uranium enrichment activities suggests that dialogue and diplomacy can help in dealing with nuclear crises.

But the deal the Iranian government has struck with three European nations is tentative and temporary. Iran's longer-term intentions remain unclear. So it would be premature to declare the negotiations a success.

Iran had much to gain from reaching this agreement. It comes just ahead of a crucial meeting of the United Nations nuclear watchdog next week. The deal is expected to head off moves towards the imposition of sanctions. But until the very last moment an agreement of any kind seemed unlikely. Only last week, one of Iran's top advisers had gone so far as to describe the European position as amounting to 'idiotic and childish' demands. It looked as though Iran would dig in its heels and resist the pressure to make the concessions required.

So even reaching an agreement is an encouraging development. The European nations wielded sticks and offered carrots. If Iran had not done the deal, it is likely that the Europeans would have backed hardline US efforts to impose sanctions. Instead, in return for what appears to amount to a full suspension of enrichment activities, Iran stands to gain considerable benefits. These include help with developing civilian nuclear technology and access to nuclear fuel.

The worry is that Iran might be using the agreement merely as a short-term tactic to stall the UN. It has been careful to point out that the arrangement is not legally binding and will last only while further negotiations take place to hammer out the details. It would be easy for the Iranians to renege on the deal.

Efforts were made by the European negotiators to ensure that the agreement is as watertight as possible. They have pushed for provisions that will make it somewhat harder for Iran to secretly wriggle out of its obligations.

None of this is likely to impress the US much, although President George W. Bush has praised British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his efforts in securing the deal.

Suspicions will remain that Iran has no intention of giving up what the US insists is a secret weapons programme. In contrast, Iran has always stressed that its nuclear activities are entirely peaceful.

The danger is that a cat-and-mouse game, involving UN inspectors, will now develop - similar to that which preceded the US invasion of Iraq. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has dismissed suggestions that the Bush administration has plans for 'regime change' in Iran. But he clearly feels he needed to make such a denial, underlining the risks involved.

Care must be taken to ensure Iran meets its obligations. But to press ahead with sanctions would be a mistake. The deal provides a glimmer of hope - it should be given a chance.