On May 31, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a statement that the United States would “join the EU-3 talks” with Tehran “should Iran verifiably suspend all of its enrichment-related activities.” The announcement came as a surprise, since the U.S. administration had previously refused to deal with the Iranian government directly.
On June 6, EU Council Secretary-General Javier Solana visited Iran and delivered a proposal worked out by the five permanent UN Security Council members (Great Britain, France, United States, Russia, and China) plus Germany on June 1 in Vienna.
Mikhail Kamynin, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated that the package contained “a substantial set of proposals, the implementation of which would enhance the possibility of working on up-to-date nuclear energy in Iran, based on the promotion of the country’s interaction with the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to create an atmosphere of trust and confidence in the peaceful nature of Tehran’s efforts in this domain” (Itar-Tass, June 13). He added that the recent proposal would allow Tehran to pursue its peaceful nuclear research, while at the same time “guarantee the observance of the nuclear non-proliferation regime” (Itar-Tass, June 13).
On June 14, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motaki met with Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Miguel Angel Moratinos and called the 5+1 proposal a “step forward.” But he also added that the package is “ambiguous” about “the absolute rights of the Iranian nation” (IRNA, June 15). Tehran is currently studying the proposal and will present its response soon.
The controversy surrounding the nuclear issue has raised Tehran’s international profile, which the Iranian government is hoping to exploit even further. Despite international criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, during the recent meeting in Vienna the non-aligned states prepared a declaration “reaffirming Tehran’s right to enrich uranium” (Daily Times, June 14).
Moreover, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in the spotlight as he attends the sixth summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which convenes in China today (businessday.co.za, June 15). Iran holds observer status at the SCO, but would like to become a full member as soon as possible.
While China and Russia have joined the European states in calling on Iran to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment activities and to consider the 5+1 proposal, both states refused to support any form of United Nation sanctions against Tehran advocated by the United States (Daily Times, June 14). Beijing and Moscow have vast energy and economic interests in Iran that could be damaged by such sanctions.
Iran may seem uncomfortable with the growing external pressure over its uranium enrichment program, but in reality the recent developments undeniably please the Iranian government. The growing international attention complements Tehran’s desire to become — with or without a nuclear weapon — a leading regional player, one that is taken seriously by other world powers.
But this is precisely what worries Iran’s neighbors. Although the majority of Iran’s neighbors support a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, they are anxious about Iran possibly becoming a nuclear military power — even in the distant future.
On June 12, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal visited Tehran and met with Foreign Minister Motaki. Al-Faisal also delivered a message to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and remarked, “We respect the right of countries to have peaceful nuclear technology, but Saudi Arabia considers the possession of weapons of mass destruction [to be] not in the interest of the region” (Arabnews.com, June 13).
Further, a Turkish columnist echoed Saudi concerns: “[The] policy of confrontation isn’t healthy for the region or the world. It looks good for Iran to create a new debate in world politics and be at the center of events, but at the same time it is dangerous. It would be naiveto believe that there will be no collision. The question is when and how?” (New Anatolian, June 5).
An Iran with a nuclear weapon would have the potential to change the current balance of power in the region. Joining the “nuclear club” would give Tehran enormous leverage over the relatively small states of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and considerable weight vis-a-vis regional players such as Turkey, Pakistan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
The recent developments in the nuclear talks and the change of tone in U.S. policy towards Tehran, as indicated by Secretary of State Rice, reveal the complex nature of the Iranian nuclear program and the issues associated with countering it. The two alternatives (sanctions and military attack) that Washington has considered using to counter Iran have been problematic.
The impacts of U.N. sanctions against Iran, which China and Russia oppose, are likely to be marginal. Beijing and Moscow have openly opposed sanctions against Tehran and could easily veto any future Security Council resolution. Likewise, unilateral sanctions do not promise much either.
Hence, the 5+1 talks and the latest proposal are the most viable option at this moment. But whether these will be enough to contain Tehran’s nuclear program to civil energy use only is anyone’s guess.