Big carrot needed for Iran to drop nuclear ambitions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2005, 12:00am

Russia's agreement to sell nuclear fuel to Iran no doubt complicates the efforts to curb the Middle Eastern country's nuclear ambitions. And it is a diplomatic blow to the US administration of George W. Bush, who just last week met Russian President Vladimir Putin to lobby against the deal.

But the object of primary concern should not be this deal, which comes with some provisions for guaranteeing that the nuclear material will not be diverted into a weapons programme. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will be allowed to monitor shipments and spent fuel will be sent back to Russia.

The more worrying issue is that Iran continues to insist it will resume separate nuclear fuel enrichment activities at some point in the future. These programmes have been far harder to keep track of and can so easily be diverted to military use by a government determined to do so.

So far the evidence of Iran's resolve in this area has been circumstantial but strong enough to be worrying: contacts with and purchases from the illegal nuclear weapons proliferation network of Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan; traces of enriched uranium found in higher concentrations than necessary for civilian purposes; nuclear activity that had not been declared, contrary to Iran's obligations as a member of the international non-proliferation treaty.

To date, however, the IAEA has not found any conclusive proof that these building blocks have been assembled into an active nuclear weapons programme. The United States, although alleging strongly that they have, has yet to present any convincing evidence.

The best hope for resolving the matter was, and still is, the European-led negotiations now under way. For all of its bluster, the US is in no position to call a military strike on Iran. There is no guarantee that such an attack would eliminate all of Iran's nuclear sites, some of which may be hidden. What's more, it might strengthen the hand of the country's ruling clerics.

The negotiations have not been a resounding success so far, this is true. A temporary suspension of enrichment activity is set to expire in a few months, and Iran has pledged to hang on to its right to develop nuclear fuel for civilian purposes.

If the aim is to persuade Iran to drop all of its nuclear programmes and accept a broad inspection regime, the incentives will have to be strong.

Germany, France and Britain have identified economic and political privileges to be extended in an agreement. What remains is for the US to give its explicit backing, something that has been missing so far and which is required for a viable deal. In a sign of progress, it does seem that the US is looking seriously at the package.

Russia's co-operation with Iran does add to the complexity of the matter, but should not be allowed to prevent progress towards a settlement.