Bush offer on Iran is to be welcomed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 June, 2006, 12:00am

If there was an obstacle to international efforts to persuade Iran to pull back from its defiant nuclear activities, it was neither of Tehran's powerful friends, China or Russia. It was the man who wasn't there.

The absence from negotiations of the United States, with its power to wield the big carrot and stick, undermined a European effort to induce Iran to abandon uranium enrichment in return for economic incentives, and a Russian offer to enrich uranium for peaceful uses.

Now that Washington has reversed its policy against negotiating with Iran, the diplomatic balance has changed. For the first time in months a stridently anti-US, cocky Iran finds itself on the back foot.

That is one reason to welcome the Bush administration's offer to join its European allies in talks with Iran. Another is that it embraces a multilateral approach that could help restore the credibility of the US after the invasion of Iraq without United Nations backing.

The offer has the endorsement of Beijing and Moscow, which resisted moves for punitive sanctions against an important economic partner, despite shared concerns about the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear weapon within a decade if it continues on its present course.

It is subject to suspension of uranium enrichment and reprocessing, a condition for talks with the US that Tehran has ruled out recently. But it is no more than it has agreed to in the past for talks with Britain, France and Germany. China and Russia were right to insist on further exploration of a diplomatic solution before any talk of punitive sanctions that might be difficult to enforce effectively. The Bush administration caved in eventually to pressure from Congress and its European allies to open a dialogue with Tehran.

Given Iran's initial dismissal of the US offer as a propaganda move, Beijing and Moscow may now have a role to play in convincing Iran's leaders that if they want a diplomatic solution to the dispute over what they claim are peaceful nuclear intentions, they should agree to Washington's terms.

Tehran has found its economic links, including oil and gas resources, a valuable card with Beijing and Moscow. But the stakes are rising. If it is not willing to negotiate seriously, it could strengthen the diplomatic hand of the US in seeking effective sanctions.

Europe has already put trade and investment incentives on the table. The presence of the US would open the way to a much wider deal embracing economic, energy and regional security issues - including an American-led security guarantee for Iran. If that is what it takes to persuade Iran to abandon its worrying activities, it is preferable to the prospect of an Islamic revolutionary state, led by anti-western fanatics who talk of wiping Israel off the map, getting its hands on nuclear weapons.