Iran’s Nuclear File

The Uncertain Endgame

by Farideh Farhi | published October 24, 2005

For background on Iranian nuclear file, see Joost Hiltermann,
Iran’s Nuclear Posture and the Scars of War,”
Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2005. 


See also Kaveh Ehsani and Chris Toensing,
“Neo-Conservatives, Hardline Clerics and the Bomb,”
in Middle East Report 233 (Winter 2004).

After almost a week of contentious meetings, on September 24, 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a resolution without precedent in its lengthy file on the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a split vote, the agency’s Board of Governors found that Iran’s “failures and breaches…constitute non-compliance” with Iran’s agreement to let the international body verify that its nuclear program is purely peaceful. Iran, which is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, concluded such a supplemental agreement with the UN nuclear watchdog in 1974.

Although this latest resolution does not set a deadline for Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, a goal the United States has been pushing for since 2002, it explicitly states that “absence of confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes [has] given rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council.” The resolution called on Iran to re-suspend conversion of uranium at its Isfahan plant. It also asked Iran to return to the negotiations begun over two years ago with Britain, France and Germany—the “EU-3” delegated by the European Union to forestall a clash between Tehran and Washington.

To be sure, the split vote (22 in favor, 1 against and 12 abstaining) in a body that has traditionally operated by consensus reflected the unease many countries feel about European and US pressure on Iran. Still, this resolution was a setback for Iran, which has worked assiduously for two years to prevent any mention of a Security Council referral by the IAEA. At the same time, subsequent events suggest that the threat of a Security Council referral may be more a tool for pressuring Tehran while the agency discusses the Iran file than evidence of real intent to pursue sanctions that will substantially harm Iran’s economy. 

This is partly due to the lack of a European-US game plan for managing the issue at the Security Council, a predicament that reportedly concerns the IAEA Director General Mohammad ElBaradei. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice failed during travels to London, Paris and Moscow in the third week of October 2005 to forge a common position among the four Security Council members on the necessity of a timeline for a Security Council referral. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told her no in front of the news cameras.

Nevertheless, the escalation of stakes at the IAEA, involving demands that go well beyond Iran’s obligations to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), may have unleashed dynamics that could end up being beyond anyone’s control. Many factors, such as Iranian domestic politics, transatlantic relations and increasingly volatile politics in the US, enhance the possibility of a Security Council showdown over Iran’s nuclear program. On the other hand, high oil prices and the mess in Iraq diminish the political will to approach yet another issue in the Middle East through confrontation rather than diplomacy. 

But, for the issue to be resolved through diplomacy, the parties involved must appreciate that Iran’s nuclear dossier is not similar to the cases the IAEA has managed in North Korea, Iraq or Libya. Iran’s political structure, with its multiple contending players, makes it a very different country with which to come to terms. Tehran’s ultimate decision on the nuclear issue will not be made by one person, but through jockeying by various actors that have taken different positions. Unless Iran’s interlocutors acknowledge Iran’s complex political realities and legitimate security concerns, their policies are bound to invite security-conscious reaction rather than moderation, ultimately hastening the advent of what they presumably hope to prevent: an Iran capable of building nuclear weapons.

Restarting Isfahan

Prior to the September 24 resolution, the farthest the IAEA Board of Governors had gone was to charge Iran with “lack of full transparency” and “past breaches”—primarily a reference to Iran’s failure to meet its “obligations” in “the reporting of nuclear material, the subsequent processing and use of that material and the declaration of facilities where the material were stored and processed.” Iran acceded grudgingly to more vigorous IAEA demands for monitoring and inspections only after an opposition group produced satellite imagery in August 2002 revealing the existence of two not yet declared nuclear facilities under construction. Inspectors have been monitoring all of Iran’s declared sites since late 2002 and, to date, they have found no evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program. 

The current escalation came about in reaction to Iran’s decision in August 2005 to resume the conversion of uranium yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride—a gas necessary for the process of making nuclear fuel—at its Isfahan plant. Iran has the right under the NPT to pursue the elements of the fuel cycle for civilian purposes, with proper safeguards, but Washington has pressed to deny Iran mastery over any aspect of the full cycle to ensure that Iran cannot manufacture the highly enriched uranium that can be used for nuclear bombs. Tehran insists it only wants the capacity to make the low-enriched uranium usable only for power generation. Conversion of yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride is the step before enrichment in the fuel cycle. 

On February 27, 2005, Tehran and Moscow signed a nuclear fuel agreement for the Bushehr plant, a nuclear reactor being built for Iran by Russia, which opens the way for Russia to supply Iran with enriched uranium fuel for ten years. Iran, in turn, agreed to ship all spent nuclear fuel produced at Bushehr back to Russia. This agreement was signed despite strong US opposition. The Iranian leadership points to years of similar pressure from Washington on countries such as Russia and China to stop any kind of nuclear cooperation with Iran (even along the lines now proposed by the Europeans) as the reason why the domestic production of nuclear fuel must be an integral part of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Despite this insistence, under the IAEA’s supervision, and following two years of negotiations with the EU-3, Iran suspended all conversion and enrichment after an agreement reached on November 15, 2004. This was done with the stated objective of building confidence about the intent of the nuclear program. Since October 2003, Tehran has also agreed to respect the requirements of an Additional Protocol to the NPT (signed by an Iranian emissary, but still not ratified by the Iranian parliament), allowing rather intrusive inspections of its declared nuclear sites.

Iran had reasons for restarting Isfahan. Foremost was dissatisfaction with the pace of and European intentions in the negotiations after November 2004. The Iranian negotiating team had maintained all along that the suspension of declared and legal activities under the NPT was merely a voluntary and temporary move to build confidence. In their tortuous negotiations with the EU-3, the Iranian team had rejected the European argument that the only way the Iranians could assure the international community about the peaceful intent of their nuclear program was through the permanent suspension of activity at some of their nuclear facilities, including the conversion plant in Isfahan, the enrichment plant in Natanz and the planned heavy water research reactor in Arak, all of which are also permitted under NPT guidelines, as long as the activity there is declared and subject to international monitoring. Iran premised its participation in the negotiations after November 2004 on the idea that there would be joint efforts to seek “objective guarantees” that did not entail permanent suspension. The Iranian negotiating team warned, publicly and privately, that they simply could not accept a solution to the nuclear dispute that would single out Iran, forcing it to forego activities other countries are allowed to pursue.

After months of deadlock, Tehran came up with a proposal that would limit, but not end, Iran’s enrichment-related activities. According to details published in the centrist reformist newspaper Sharq on August 11, 2005, Tehran offered the preceding March to produce only low-enriched uranium; to limit the amount of uranium enriched; to convert all low-enriched uranium to fuel rods for use in reactors (fuel rods cannot be further enriched); to limit the number of centrifuges in Natanz in the beginning and make the full operation of the fuel cycle incremental, beginning with the least sensitive part of uranium conversion; to refrain from reprocessing spent reactor fuel and hence keep an open fuel cycle; and, finally, to give the IAEA a permanent on-site presence at all sites for uranium conversion and enrichment. 

The EU-3 did not respond to this proposal. Caught between US insistence that under no circumstances should Iran be allowed to master any aspect of the fuel cycle, and Iran’s equally intransigent position that it could not reasonably be asked to give up activities international law allows other countries to pursue, the European troika kept mum beyond the midsummer deadline set by Iran for a response. Reportedly, a package was prepared, but none was delivered. In all likelihood, the Europeans hoped that the Iranian presidential election of June 2005, from which former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was expected to emerge victorious, would bring to power a seasoned politician willing to make a deal. This, in turn, would make it easier to press Washington for more flexibility. In other words, the Europeans banked on circumstances to allow them to reconcile the irreconcilable positions of Washington and Tehran.

A European Counter-Propoasl

As it turned out, circumstances did not come to the Europeans’ aid. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner whose supporters had opposed the EU-3 negotiations process from the beginning, unexpectedly became president of Iran. Rumors spread that the Europeans had quietly withdrawn the package they were preparing to give the Iranian government if Rafsanjani were elected. Concerned that reaction to the Europeans’ non-response after Ahmadinejad assumed power would be interpreted as a hardline turn due to a change in presidency, the Iranian leadership convened an emergency meeting while Mohammad Khatami was still president. To show internal consensus, the leadership made a point of announcing that not only were Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad present at the meeting, but Mir Hossein Moussavi, the former prime minister with close ties with the reformist camp, was there as well. Iran’s position was unequivocal: either Europe offered an acceptable package to Iran or Isfahan would be restarted.

Caught off guard, the Europeans offered a hastily put-together counter-proposal in August 2005 that did not take into account Iran’s offer and, in fact, was a restatement of previous proposals that Iran had already rejected. Key in the EU-3 counter-proposal was the demand that Iran “make a legally binding commitment not to withdraw from the NPT and to keep all Iranian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards under all circumstances.” The NPT itself allows signatories to withdraw, provided that they give 90-day notice to the IAEA. This demand, however, is crucial for the Europeans and the US, who fear that Iran will “break out” of the NPT once its civilian nuclear program becomes capable of building nuclear weapons. 

In addition, the EU-3 again asked Iran “not to pursue fuel cycle activities other than the construction and operation of light water power and research reactors,” and to acquire its fuel through external sources. In return for these concessions Iran had already rejected, the EU-3 “accepted” Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy and offered help in expanding Iran’s now limited nuclear industry, as well as trade and security incentives that fell considerably short of what Iran seeks. The European package committed Britain and France not to use nuclear weapons against Iran “except in the case of an invasion or any attack on them, their dependent territories, their armed forces, or other troops, their allies or on a State towards which they have a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State.” The package said nothing about conventional attacks on Iran and nothing about countries that have publicly made physical threats against Iran, namely the US and Israel. The trade incentives were similarly weak, since it is the United States, not Europe, which is imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

The EU-3 proposal was rejected and, having made a threat, Iran had to follow through. But it did so by maintaining the country’s voluntary commitment to the Additional Protocol. Iran took time to follow proper procedures for the IAEA to remove the seals it had placed on equipment at the Isfahan plant and to install inspection cameras. Isfahan currently operates as a fully declared installation under the IAEA’s watch.

The IAEA’s Sterner Tone

Unable to convince the EU-3, the Iranian leadership now sought to decouple the link they had themselves created between IAEA inspections and the extra measures the November 2004 agreement called upon them to take in order to build confidence. Iran’s voluntary commitments in line with the requirements of the Additional Protocol would be kept, but other voluntary commitments beyond Iran’s NPT obligations would be incrementally abandoned, if no acceptable offers came through.

But severing the tie between the IAEA’s inspection responsibilities and Iran’s voluntary commitments to the EU-3 proved difficult for Iran, because the agreement with Europe had also given the IAEA a second mission as the monitor for Iran’s confidence building measures. So long as the Europeans were involved in negotiations with Iran, the IAEA Director General and the Board of Governors were willing to report progress. In its resolution of November 29, 2004, the Board of Governors reaffirmed “its strong concern that Iran’s policy of concealment up to October 2003 has resulted in many breaches of Iran’s obligations to comply with the NPT safeguards agreement.” At the same time, it acknowledged “the corrective measures described in the Director General’s report.” Once Isfahan was restarted, however, the tone of reports from both the Director General and the Board of Governors changed.

The Director General’s September 2, 2005 report does again acknowledge “good progress” in Iran’s “corrections of breaches” since October 2003, resulting in the IAEA’s verification of certain aspects of Iran’s declarations, particularly on the “outstanding issue” of why inspectors had found traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment at Kalaye Electric Company, a centrifuge workshop, in August 2003. Through what seems to be the long-awaited cooperation of Pakistani sources, the IAEA established that the equipment was probably contaminated before Iran imported it. The report also reiterates that the agency has yet to find any evidence of declared material being diverted to “prohibited activities.” But it criticizes Iran for failing to stick to its suspension of uranium enrichment and defines Tehran’s cooperation with the agency as “overdue.”

More importantly, despite acknowledging several “transparency measures” Iran has taken that go beyond the requirements of the Additional Protocol, and after admitting that “the agency’s legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons-related activity is limited,” the report demands that Iran’s “transparency measures should extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and include access to individuals, documentation related to procurement, dual-use equipment, certain military-owned workshops and research and development locations.” In other words, the Director General wants Iran to solve his agency’s problem of “limited” legal authority by submitting voluntarily to additional scrutiny. This demand is reproduced in the September 2005 Board of Governors Resolution. For the Iranian leadership, this again raised the question of whether there is anything Tehran can do, short of allowing the inspection of every inch of the country, to satisfy the IAEA and the Western majority on the Board of Governors. Aside from the impossibility of proving a negative (that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program), it was the specter of Iraqization of the Iran dossier—the worry that the more Iran gives in, the more it will be asked to do—that led Tehran to restart Isfahan. By doing so, Tehran is attempting to remind both the IAEA and the EU-3 that everything it has done so far has been voluntary and non-legally binding, a point conveniently ignored in the latest resolution. As such, Tehran seems to be suggesting that attempts to extract increased concessions from Iran without progress on the resolution of the nuclear dossier at the IAEA are not acceptable.

Meanwhile, by threatening Iran with a Security Council referral and insisting on the double-track strategy of pushing Iran into “voluntarily” assenting to both highly intrusive inspections and halting its domestic fuel production capabilities, the Europeans and the US are flexing muscles that may have atrophied. When Tehran agreed to begin negotiations with the EU-3 in 2003, the European and Iranian leaderships had a common concern. The Europeans were worried about US adventurism, as reflected in the Iraq invasion, and Tehran was worried about an actual US attack on Iran. Since 2003, the global dynamics have changed, and so has the Iranian domestic debate.

Iran’s Domestic Dynamics

Since October 2003, there have been critics in Tehran arguing that the EU-3 negotiations were useless or even dangerous—either because Europe could not deliver since its promises required the never forthcoming US assent, or because trying to address the technical problems Iran had with the IAEA through a political deal was a mistake.

The first set of critics were mostly hardliners, who objected to the “meek” posture of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist cabinet, agreeing to concrete concessions such as the implementation of the Additional Protocol in return for what they identified as mere promises by the Europeans. The second set of critics questioned the capabilities of the Iranian negotiating team, as a means of attacking the reformist Foreign Ministry under the leadership of Kamal Kharrazi. Negotiations with Europe were not necessarily a problem, but Iran’s weak negotiating team and positions were

Both Kharrazi and Hassan Rohani, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s lead negotiator with the EU-3, defended the negotiations before several raucous sessions of Parliament. In the summer of 2004, Kharrazi argued that Iran’s precarious international position in 2003 necessitated a political deal. He also reminded the deputies that the decision to continue negotiations was not his or the Foreign Ministry’s. Later, Rohani reiterated to jeering parliamentarians that Supreme Leader Khamenei himself backed the EU-3 talks.

The negotiators also tried to shore up their support by keeping the Iranian public informed about the details of discussions. This public airing of the nuclear issue has had complicated effects. On the one hand, it has increased public support for Tehran’s posture in the negotiations and the government’s refusal to “give up rights permitted under the NPT.” On the other hand, by portraying the issue as a question of Iran’s sovereign right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, which the Europeans are trying to take away, the government has made its own negotiating position less flexible. Backing away from what is now portrayed as a “sovereign right” will indeed be considered a failure for the government.

Now that staunch conservatives are in control of all non-elective and elective institutions, it may be harder still for Iran to back down. At the UN World Summit on September 17, Ahmadinejad talked tough: “If some try to impose their will on the Iranian people through resorting to the language of force and threats with Iran, we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue.” The decision to restart Isfahan was made before Ahmadinejad took power, but now that international pressure has intensified, it is difficult not to blame the new president and his negotiating team. This is particularly the case since Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns predicted that Ahmadinejad’s “overly harsh, negative and uncompromising” speech at the UN would result in “a toughening of the international response to Iran”—and since other Western diplomats echoed his judgment.

Hence the Iranian leadership’s dilemma: how do they defend a consensus “hardline” decision taken by both hardliners and more conciliatory elements, at a time when the Iranian foreign policy establishment has been taken over by hardliners, and look conciliatory at the same time? 

A “Nationalist Issue”

The new Iranian government thought they could do this through a double-edged strategy. Ignoring the Europeans, they would rely on the Iraq impasse, the volatile oil market and their economic dealings with China and Russia to convince those powers that a Security Council referral was not in their interest. Then they would rely on Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy under the NPT to sway the members of the Non-Aligned Movement, the argument being that treating Iran an exception will wreck the treaty itself and create an “apartheid system” of haves and have-nots, not only in the area of nuclear weapons but also in nuclear energy.

This strategy was partially successful. The Chinese and Russians prevented the EU-3 and the US from incorporating a full-fledged “trigger mechanism”—a timetable—in the September 24 resolution. Furthermore, even this watered-down version had to be pushed through not by consensus but by majority vote, a first in the IAEA’s history. China and Russia abstained, along with ten Non-Aligned Movement countries, including Brazil (which is pursuing its own enrichment activities) and South Africa, while Venezuela voted against the resolution.

What the Iranian leadership underestimated was the US-European political will to threaten Iran even at the cost of a fractured board. Even more shocking to the Iranians was the decision by India to vote against Iran. The new Iranian lead negotiator, Ali Larijani, had visited India expecting that country’s backing because if its long-standing independent foreign policy. But clout trumped principles: members of the US Senate warned India that a vote against the resolution would threaten the US-India pact promising India future transfers of US nuclear technology. If the Iranians did not get the message, Washington’s expression of gratitude to New Delhi was a pointed reminder.

Indeed, the fact that only one country voted against the resolution was a jolt that has yet to work itself fully through the Iranian political system. The first to react to the resolution were the hardliners outside of government. In an editorial in the conservative daily Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari said that the resolution does indeed include a “trigger mechanism,” predicted a Security Council referral, and called the Iranian parliament “spineless” for not forcing the government to suspend its adherence to the Additional Protocol. He reminded everyone that he had predicted this path all along, one filled with growing Iranian concessions and empty European promises. These sentiments were not his alone. Demonstrations were held in front of the British Embassy and, on October 17, the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission approved the general outlines of a bill providing for the suspension of the government’s voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol.

Shariatmadari had previously dismissed the threat of a Security Council referral. As far as he was concerned, an actual referral would either mean a divided Security Council (with Russian and Chinese vetoes) or a weak resolution that, like the IAEA resolution, was full of demands but few mechanisms to realize those demands. The referral would also be an opportunity for Iran to leave the NPT for good.

Others have been less sanguine. Acknowledging that Iran’s negotiations with Europe began from a position of weakness, the reformist editorialist Abbas Abdi argued that Iran’s red line should be the referral to the Security Council, since, in such a forum, Iran will have no control. For Abdi, the issue, like all issues in international politics, is not Iran’s national sovereign “right” to pursue nuclear energy but its “might” to do so without wreaking havoc on the economy and soliciting military attack. If Iran can do this, by all means it should go ahead and do so. If it can, it should even go for nuclear weapons. If not, better to back down now than later, when the terms may be harsher. Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former reformist deputy foreign minister, and Mohsen Mirdamadi, former head of the reformist parliament’s foreign policy committee, have also argued that a Security Council referral must be avoided at all costs.

Mohammad Quchani, editor of Sharq, made the most interesting argument. Pointing to the Iranian leadership’s attempt to make the nuclear file a “nationalist” issue along the lines of Mohammad Mossadeq’s oil nationalization in the 1950s, Quchani reflected on the irony of the Islamic Republic, with all its pretensions to rally Muslims everywhere, suddenly discovering national pride. Quchani reminded the Iranian leadership that Mossadeq’s nationalism was not premised on mere patriotic slogans. It insisted not only upon Iran’s sovereign rights under international law, but also upon the nation’s right to participate in decisions through a democratic process. Implicit in the argument of all reformists is that Iran would not be in such a precarious position had there not been a conservative assault on elective institutions and the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people over the preceding eight years.

The reformists are no doubt correct about the difficulties faced by a government trying to fight on both domestic and international fronts, but their position is not without its own dilemmas. To be sure, Iran is being pressured because of decisions made by unaccountable leaders. At the same time, the EU-3 and the US do ask Iran to do things well beyond Iran’s international obligations. Under these circumstances, the reformist lamentations of past misdeeds offer little guidance for how to get out of the present impasse beyond possibly “giving in.” That position gives further ammunition to hardliners who have always charged that the reformists are, at best, “meek” and, at worst, “agents of foreign powers.”

A Game With No End?

The new government itself, caught between contending viewpoints and factions, has reacted cautiously after initial promises of an immediate response to an “illegal” resolution. Major players such as Rafsanjani have called for “diplomacy and not slogans.” Rafsanjani’s intervention is important because, contrary to expectations after his defeat in the presidential election, his institutional powers as the head of the Expediency Council have been enhanced in a move widely seen as a means to rein in the hardliners’ unchecked power and dangerous ideological adventurism.

In response to the call to suspend activity at Isfahan and return to negotiations, the government has said that it is willing to return to negotiations without any “preconditions.” In other words, it has so far reiterated that Isfahan is no longer negotiable.

Meanwhile, Washington turned up the heat on Tehran in tandem with Rice’s trip to Europe. Undersecretary of State Burns, pointedly speaking from India, again threatened Iran with a referral, while John Bolton, ambassador to the UN, took to the BBC’s airwaves to challenge the international community not to “accept an Iran that violates its treaty commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that lies about its program and is determined to get nuclear weapons deliverable on ballistic missiles that it can then use to intimidate not only its own region but possibly to supply to terrorists.”

Despite the intensified rhetoric, Rice’s inability to extract a commitment from Europe to develop a timetable to refer Iran to the Security Council at the next IAEA meeting on November 24 suggests that the time for an all-out confrontation has not yet arrived. The mundane reason: nobody is ready for it. Not to achieve a resolution, but to buy time, some sort of talks will likely continue. 

Tehran would go along because then it could proceed with uranium conversion in Isfahan. Continuation of talks will also allow Iran to get its own house in order after the stunning presidential election. Remaining thus in limbo is not cost-free: Iran wants to become a fully integrated member of the international community. But Iran has been in limbo for two decades; it can weather a few more years, especially if being in limbo means slowly improving relations with other countries throughout the world. 

The Europeans are also hinting that they prefer talks to continue for lack of better options. The full implications of a confrontation with Iran, the EU’s third largest trading partner in the Middle East after Israel and Saudi Arabia, are something the Europeans have yet to work through. Avoiding confrontation, after all, was the motivation for the EU-Iran talks to begin with.

In addition, the Europeans surely understand that while a weak resolution from a fractured IAEA board may be useful for pressuring Iran in negotiations, a vetoed (now likely given Russia’s stance) or similarly weak resolution at the Security Council will embolden Tehran to renounce every aspect of the deal they have made with Europe and IAEA so far, including the ongoing voluntary suspension of the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz and adherence to the Additional Protocol. A sample of how escalating the conflict with Iran might lead to an undesirable reaction from Iran was revealed when in mid-October Britain accused Iran of being the source of improvised explosive devices in southern Iraq. Iran, in turn, immediately accused Britain of being behind the recent explosions in Ahwaz, the capital of the oil-rich Khuzestan province.

Finally, there is Tehran’s silent interlocutor, the United States. Lacking a strategy for managing the effects of a Security Council referral on oil prices and fearing more hostile Iranian involvement in Iraq, Washington may also find stalling a better option than outright confrontation, despite public protestations to the contrary. This is particularly the case given the political disarray that has gripped the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, the same disarray is preventing the US from developing a coherent strategy vis-à-vis Iran. 

Almost everyone interested in reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions (at least those who do not also fantasize about regime change) seems to agree upon one thing: a solution to the “Iran problem” can only come about through direct contact between Iran and the United States. Such direct talks are necessary not only to close the nuclear file and deliver credible security guarantees to Iran, but also to defuse other explosive issues such as Iran’s support for Hizballah in Lebanon and Iran’s role in Iraq. But here, as well, the status quo persists.

Condoleezza Rice reiterated in London on October 16 that, at least “at this point,” there will be no US-Iranian talks on the nuclear issue. Tehran, in turn, will reject US overtures, hinted at by Rice, regarding talks on other issues of common interest such as Iraq. Iran’s position is that past talks have not succeeded in reducing Washington’s animosity. It is a sign of our troubled times that this uneasy status quo may be a better alternative than a contretemps at the UN Security Council.

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