Russia, Europe and Iran - the Power Politics

October 24, 2005
The Financial Times
Daniel Dombey

Over the past few weeks, unannounced, almost unsuspected, something quite important has happened about Iran. Both the US and the European Union have softened their line about the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear ambitions. While Tehran insists its intentions are purely peaceful, Washington and Europe suspect it of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

But, faced with the unpalatable option of taking the issue to a crunch, the US and the EU's big three powers have decided to spend more time in the quest for a negotiated solution.

You might think that this is a victory of sorts for the EU which likes to preach its doctrines of “engagement” and “effective multilateralism” (a phrase which could translate as “negotiations aren't just for wimps” or “don't give up on the United Nations just yet”).

But you'd be wrong.

In fact, the only glimmer of hope currently flickering amidst the Iran impasse is something entirely different - great power politics, personified by Russia, practitioner par excellence of realpolitik.

First, the US-EU shift.

The background is well known. When in his 2002 state of the union speech President US George W. Bush described North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil” he almost sounded as if he was setting out a plan of conquest.

As late as this year, vice-president Dick Cheney publicly toyed with the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran, which would “let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards”.

But the US's diplomatic rapprochement with Europe and, still more important, its continuing problems in Iraq, have largely put paid to such ideas.

Instead, the US is providing support for the combined French/British/German/EU negotiations with Iran, which until recently it has treated as the only game in town.

The only problem is that those negotiations aren't actually taking place.

In August, Iran dismissed EU proposals as unacceptable and duly broke a framework deal under which it had stopped all activity that could be connected with building up a nuclear weapons capacity.

Ever since then, the Europeans have refused to come back to the negotiations and things have remained pretty well stuck.

The irony is the Iranian nuclear work keeping the EU away from the negotiating table is relatively minor. The relevant phase of the nuclear fuel cycle is called uranium conversion and cannot of itself produce weapons-grade material.

It is only a preparatory step for the much more sensitive activity of uranium enrichment, which Tehran has still not resumed.

The EU says that, as a matter of good faith, Iran simply has to stop converting uranium. But such a step would be seen as a massive backtrack in Tehran. Hence the European-Iranian impasse.

This is where Russia comes in.

Since the Europeans and the Iranians can barely talk to each other (and the Americans are at an even further remove), the premium is high on a third party attempt to solve the crisis.

Back in May, the Russians floated an idea that would allow the Iranians to convert uranium at their plant in Isfahan, but ship the resulting feedstock out of the country for enrichment elsewhere. That way, the key technologies that can produce uranium of lethal density would be off Iranian soil.

At the time, the EU made it clear they weren't interested.

Now, it seems, they want to know more details, even though accepting the Russian proposal would mean swallowing the EU's misgivings about allowing conversion in Iran.

Even Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, has pronounced herself “very pleased” that the Russians are going to pursue their ideas with the Iranians.

The talks are ongoing. On Monday, both the Iranian foreign minister and the US national security adviser were in Moscow to discuss the issue with Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister.

There is no guarantee that the Russians will succeed in convincing either side, let alone both the Iranians and the US and Europeans.

But isn't it ironic that the EU, which values “engagement” and multilateralism so much, has ended up all but outsourcing its showpiece diplomatic push to Moscow?

One EU3 diplomat comments that while the EU isn't banking on a bells-and-whistles diplomatic breakthrough by Russia, Moscow has the most prospect of providing a forward push in the case.

The EU's own hands are tied and there have only been the slightest of signs that Iran's stance is softening.

As a result, European diplomacy on Iran currently largely consists of hoping that the Russians will come up with something to sort things out.

Ever since the EU3 first struck a deal with Tehran in 2003, the Iran file has been highlighted as a sign that the EU has finally made its mark in high diplomacy. And it's true that Europe has finally arrived in this domain. But all the same it still has a few things to learn.