How to deal with Iran?

2007-02-20 13:13

Vienna - Saddam's Iraq was invaded and North Korea cajoled into a deal. But how to get Iran - the third member of President George W Bush's "Axis of Evil" - to abandon its suspected nuclear arms programme is befuddling the international community.

The United States has not ruled out the military option, but it seems unlikely: The chaos unleashed in Iraq by America's invasion not only ties up US troops but is consistently invoked by key US allies as a reason not to go that route.

That leaves negotiations of the kind that persuaded North Korea last week to agree to denuclearise in exchange for political and economic concessions by the United States and other nations linked regionally or strategically to Pyongyang.

But so far, Iran has been impervious to that approach, rejecting multilateral talks as long as long as its negotiating partners insist it give up plans to develop uranium enrichment - a possible pathway to nuclear arms.

Key nations pressuring Iran say they share the goal of getting it to renounce enrichment. But part of the problem may be lack of unity on how hard to push to achieve that goal.

Russia and China spoilers

From the US point of view, veto-wielding UN security council members Russia and China - which see Iran as a key strategic and economic partner - have acted as spoilers, watering down sanctions. And - although the council has agreed to deliberate on tougher sanctions as early as the end of the month - Moscow and Beijing are likely to again resist a US push for tough penalties.

In the case of North Korea, some of the five nations on the other side of the negotiating table also had some divergent bilateral interests.

South Korea is wary of the huge costs associated with absorbing a poverty-stricken North in case of unification. Russia clutches to Pyongyang as a bastion of waning influence in Northeast Asia and China considers its clout with the North as a key lever in the region.

But none of those impinged on the shared concerns about the North's nuclear threat. Pyongyang's apparent nuclear test late last year strengthened those worries - and with it determination to reach a deal. The United States even agreed to normalise relations with the North - a step it is unwilling to take in the case of Iran because of concerns about its alleged support for terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.

Economic issues

In contrast, Iran is still believed to be at least two years away from nuclear weapons capabilities - should it use enrichment to create a weapon.

With Iran still not a weapons state - and insisting it has no interest in becoming one - Russia and China appear to be juggling their concerns about enrichment with other interests. In China's case, Iran is an important energy provider, whereas Russia is involved in multibillion dollar economic deals with Tehran, including weapons sales and building its first nuclear reactor.

Economic issues are also at play in Europe's approach to Iran.

US companies are barred from doing business with Tehran, and a law congress passed in 1996 allows Washington to penalise even foreign firms engaged in commerce with the Islamic republic.

EU foreign ministers have called on all countries to enforce sanctions outlined in last month's UN resolution that targeted people and programs linked to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. But there is nothing comparable to the US legislation in the European Union, leaving European officials to argue that nothing obliges their countries to follow US footsteps and choke off trade and economic ties with Iran beyond what is stipulated in the UN resolution.

Natural resources

With America shut out of Iran, oil companies from other countries remain eager to take up the slack, particularly because Tehran's petroleum industry is not under UN sanctions. Other European industries are also active - though it has fallen since then, total European Union trade with Iran was at more than $25.85bn in 2004, the last year complete figures were available.

North Korea, in contrast, is uninteresting from the economic - and political - point of view for most of the world.

"It's an incredibly isolated state that has no friends and no significant resources to export," says Matthew Bunn, with Harvard University's Managing the Atom project of North Korea.

"But Iran is a state with vast oil and gas resources and a web of commercial and political relations with a large number of important states.

"That makes for a huge difference in terms of the international communities willingness to put leverage on them."

Playing the nuclear card

Another difference is North Korea's status as a declared nuclear weapons state. That might have led the North's leadership to decide it was time to reach a deal from a position of strength. Iran, in contrast, is still developing such potential capabilities - and as such is not keen to deal away its nuclear card.

Also important is not only what deal is made, but whether it is kept. The pact with the North was preceded by others that Pyongyang then broke.

"I don't think he has any intention of eliminating all of his nuclear weapons in his life time," nuclear expert Graham Allison said of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Allison, a former assistant defence secretary under US president Bill Clinton, said the agreement will instead put Kim in a position to "demand a high price" for every small concession in future negotiations.