Iran and the Western powers are on a collision course as the clock ticks toward crucial talks in Paris next week about Tehran's nuclear program. Iranian diplomats insist that their country's development of nuclear technology is for peaceful, civilian purposes only. They say Iran is merely exercising its right, under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium for reactor fuel.
But the European Union "troika" of Britain, France and Germany and the Bush administration do not believe them. Brandishing evidence of past concealment gathered by U.N. inspectors, they suspect that Iran is seeking weapons-grade uranium to build atomic bombs.
The talks are highly technical in nature. Yet the basic problem underlying complex disputes about yellowcake and centrifuges is more easily understood. It boils down to an abiding, mutual lack of trust. Unless somebody gives ground soon, the Paris talks between the E.U. and Iran could mark a parting of the ways.
"The U.S. is using the nuclear issue as a pretext for regime change," a senior Iranian official said this week. "The issue is a diversion. The U.S. wants to weaken Iran. Even if the nuclear issue was solved, they would want another thing and another thing."
Iran had agreed to a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment as a confidence-building measure, not a complete cessation, the official said. And the suspension would not necessarily last much longer. President Mohammad Khatami drove the point home in Isfahan, Iran, this week: "Cessation of these activities is unacceptable to us. If the Europeans insist ... whatever happens after, the responsibility lies with them."
Determined not to repeat its North Korea mistakes, the United States is equally adamant that Iran must give way before it acquires full nuclear weapons capabilities. "It really is now up to the Iranians to do what they need to do," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned. By offering limited incentives to Iran for the first time last week, she said, the U.S. had "forged a common front with Europe ... I'm sure it makes the Iranians uncomfortable."
Stephen Hadley, the U.S. national security advisor, dismissed Iran's proffered "objective guarantees." "The best guarantee is to permanently abandon their enrichment facilities," he said.
Stuck in the middle, the E.U. is in the increasingly awkward position of holding the ring between Tehran and Washington, which is not directly involved in the talks. While it worries about Iran, Europe's bottom line is avoiding an Iraq-style rift with the United States.
British officials are urging Tehran to agree to an indefinite suspension of enrichment while talks on trade and normalization issues proceed. "Like history, diplomacy never ends," a senior official said. But this approach does not recommend itself to Washington neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, who assert that only regime change in Tehran can ultimately solve the problem.
"The belief that there's a diplomatic solution to be had here is increasingly the triumph of hope over experience," the Wall Street Journal commented. On the American right, distrust also extends to the E.U., whose leadership on Iran is resented and whose post-Iraq solidarity is doubted.
Iranian officials have been quick to suggest that by agreeing with the United States to carpet Iran in the U.N. Security Council if incentives flop and the talks fail, the troika is walking into a trap. "The Americans are trying to create an environment so the U.S. can hit Iran," one diplomat said. "And I don't think the Europeans would ultimately accept this."
That could be a serious miscalculation. But any Iranian attempt to play the E.U. off against America would test Europe's unity of purpose. Khatami is due to visit French President Jacques Chirac next month. British diplomats point out that the Iranians have long sought U.S. engagement. Now that it is forthcoming, they say, Tehran detects a plot.