Iran Monday moved to avoid a showdown with the West over its contested nuclear activities by freezing all operations connected with the enrichment of uranium into nuclear fuel. But Tehran, in a further act of the brinkmanship that has characterized its strategy over the past 18 months, waited until the last moment to observe the terms of a deal recently agreed to with the European Union troika of Britain, Germany and France.
While the Europeans are guardedly optimistic that they can reach a broader agreement with Tehran to end the nuclear row and defuse a potentially bigger crisis, early noises from the second-term Bush administration have been more belligerent over the past week. The U.S. insists that Iran is on a surreptitious nuclear weapons drive and is experimenting with matching its missiles with designs for nuclear warheads. Reacting to the news of a freeze during a visit to Colombia, George W. Bush said: "Let's say I hope it's true." He added, "I think the definition of truth is the willingness of the Iranian regime to allow for verification."
Nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were at Iranian facilities Monday to verify Iran's uranium freeze.
Going into a session of the IAEA's 35-strong governing board in Vienna, Austria, its chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, confirmed the freeze. "We're just trying to apply seals and make sure everything has been stopped," he told journalists. "Pretty much everything has come to a halt right now." The Iranians had until this week's board meeting to freeze its uranium program or face penalties.
If Iran had not acted, the Europeans would have fallen in line with the Americans for the first time in almost two years of diplomatic battling and taken the issue away from the IAEA and to the higher forum of the U.N. Security Council in New York. Referral to the Security Council would politicize the dispute and could result in sanctions.
Under the terms of the deal, however, the Europeans have promised that the dispute will not go to the Security Council, isolating the Americans and making it almost impossible for Washington to get its way in Vienna. The Iran issue will dominate the Vienna meeting on Thursday and Friday, with the E.U. troika also drafting a resolution on Iran that should dictate the future of the dispute.
Over the weekend, according to diplomats, Britain and Germany differed over the wording of the resolution. The Germans wanted a milder tone. The British, with an eye to getting the U.S. behind the draft, wanted a formula that included a trigger to automatically refer Iran to the Security Council should it breach the terms of the agreement reached this month in Paris.
The Europeans showed the draft to the Americans on the weekend. It included compromise language that may not be acceptable to the Americans. There was no automatic trigger; instead, the IAEA was instructed to tell the 35 board members of the agency immediately if any breach of the uranium-enrichment freeze was discovered.
The agreement has been jeopardized in recent days by the news that Iran was rushing to process uranium concentrate into uranium hexafluoride gas ahead of Tuesday's deadline. The gas is fed into centrifuges to be enriched into nuclear fuel or fissile material for warheads.
As recently as the weekend, Tehran dismissed the reports of uranium conversion as "lies." But the conversion was confirmed by ElBaradei Monday, effectively declaring that Tehran had lied. ElBaradei said Iran had produced two tons of the gas known as UF6.
Monday's suspension and the interim agreement with the E.U. bring a truce to the 18-month dispute, but it remains to be seen whether that will be turned into a durable cease-fire. The uranium freeze is supposed to continue until the E.U. and Iran agree to a broader pact on nuclear, economic, trade and political cooperation. Talks on this will start in just over a fortnight.
E.U. foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Monday said that the longer-term pact with Iran hinged on Tehran's abandoning uranium enrichment altogether. Iran, by contrast, stressed that the freeze that started Monday will be brief.