Playing chicken on a world stage

Despite signs the GCC may be nudging Russia and China to soften their opposition to sanctions the stand-off over Tehran's nuclear intentions remains unpredictable.

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As a dramatic week at the UN General Assembly draws to a close with a show of strength from the US, UK and France over Tehran's nuclear intentions, the stage is set for critical talks between Iran and the so-called "P5 + 1" countries - America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - on October 1. Pressure, particularly from pro-Israel groups, for the US to confront Iran over its suspected attempts to develop a nuclear weapon has been growing for some time, reaching a peak with the events in New York this week, during which Iran appeared to be boxed in by a greater display of unity between the positions of the major powers. Next week's talks represent the first substantive discussions of the nuclear issue between the US and Iran.

President Barack Obama, who made engagement with Iran a centrepiece of his foreign policy agenda, differentiating himself from his predecessor George W Bush, set the end of September as a deadline for talks to begin. He has used the week to shore up diplomatic support and legitimacy for a multilateral approach on the Iran nuclear programme, gaining an encouraging statement from his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev that further sanctions could be "inevitable" - Russia had previously opposed tighter sanctions on Iran.

For his part, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been enjoying being the focus of international attention in New York, giving a by now trademark denial of the Holocaust and being interviewed by the US media. Although one former diplomat dismissed Mr Ahmadinejad's remarks about the Holocaust as "a sideshow", they reinforce Israeli fears about Iran, and give Mr Obama less political room to manoeuvre on engagement policies.

In his address to the General Assembly, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said preventing "the tyrants of Tehran" from acquiring nuclear weapons was the most urgent problem the UN faced. The October 1 talks hinge, say foreign policy experts, on whether Iran is prepared to discuss its uranium enrichment programme, which it insists is for purely civilian purposes. In a set of proposals sent on September 9, Iran implied that this was not a matter for discussion, focusing instead on wider international security and economic issues. In a US television interview from New York earlier this week, Mr Ahmadinejad appeared to take an inflexible line, saying uranium enrichment would "never be closed down" in Iran.

The main challenge at the October 1 talks, said Sir Richard Dalton, a former UK ambassador to Iran, would be setting the agenda for discussions, in effect deciding whether Iran's uranium enrichment was on the table or not. "I'm not optimistic at the moment," Sir Richard said, "because they haven't been interested in the previous proposals." The international community sent Iran proposals in 2006 and 2008, offering a range of economic incentives, including supplying it with fuel for nuclear energy and allowing it to continue nuclear research and development "once international confidence is restored", in exchange for suspension of uranium enrichment activities.

Iran has the right to pursue civilian nuclear technology under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the problem is that once the technology has been developed to enrich uranium for fuel purposes, it can theoretically be further developed for weapons purposes. Evidence emerged in 2002 which suggested plans to develop weapons-grade technology, and although the latest official US intelligence assessment is that those plans were abandoned in 2003, various other intelligence reports, combined with compliance issues with the nuclear inspections watchdog the IAEA, have given cause for concern, which Israel and its allies in Washington have been pushing strongly.

Various attempts by EU negotiating teams to persuade Iran verifiably to suspend uranium enrichment, which Iran had initially agreed to do in 2003, ended in failure, and in 2006 the UN Security Council imposed the first three sets of limited sanctions resolutions. Yesterday's revelation of the existence of a second uranium enrichment plant will add impetus to those who say Iran cannot be trusted and its nuclear ambitious are something to be urgently confronted.

From Iran's point of view, the capacity to produce nuclear energy independently is "a bottom line", according to Paul Rogers, a non-proliferation expert at the Oxford Research Group. "They see it as a sign of modernity." Two things, however, are different from 2008. The threat of tougher sanctions if Iran fails to meet the international community's concerns, hitherto something of a paper tiger because of Russian and Chinese reluctance to impose them, now looks more realistic following Mr Medvedev's comments in New York this week.

"This could indicate a shift in the Russian position," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based analyst. Some US media have attributed this change to Mr Obama's decision to scrap a planned missile defence shield in Europe, to which Russia was bitterly opposed, but Mr Felgenhauer said this was one calculation among many for Moscow. "Russia does not have a coherent position on Iran and the Middle East," he explained. "They like to make money here and there, there is a pro-Iran lobby in Moscow, there is a pro-Israel lobby in Moscow."

One development that Mr Felgenhauer said could be "a factor" in Russia's position on Iran is an apparently co-ordinated initiative by the GCC countries, who are concerned about Iran's growing power in the region, to provide economic incentives to Russia and China, including a mooted rescheduling of Russian debt to Kuwait and Saudi plans to purchase US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) worth of Russian arms. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in London, an adviser to the GCC was quoted as saying: "We need to work as a coalition in peace as well as war if we are to prevent another war."

Mr Medvedev's words, said Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at St Andrews University in Scotland, "will start to worry" the Iranians. But, he said, while some members of the Iranian establishment were concerned about the disastrous economic consequences of further sanctions, the current decision-making elite led by Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad felt they were in a strong position, and believed they had reassurances from Russia.

"I suspect they won't see further sanctions coming until the Security Council passes them." Another thing that makes conditions more propitious than in 2008 is, according to Paul Rogers, "the change in international mood" initiated by Mr Obama. Mr Rogers suggests that Iran sees the current international arms control regime as hypocritical, allowing existing nuclear powers to maintain their arsenals and turning a blind eye to nations such as India and Israel developing nuclear weapons, while censuring "unfriendly" states such as Iran and North Korea.

By making non-proliferation and a drawdown in existing arsenals a policy priority, Mr Rogers said, Mr Obama was chipping away at the justification for this position. The US president presided over a symbolically important Security Council resolution this week on working towards a nuclear-free world, committing himself to talks with Russia over a strategic reduction of the US's own stocks. Nonetheless, the obstacles ahead are daunting. Iran's own domestic turmoil since its disputed June 12 election sent fissures through the political elite, makes it particularly difficult to assess how the government will respond to incentives and deterrents, analysts say.

All these factors will determine whether Iran agrees to put its nuclear programme up for discussion on October 1. For Mr Obama, failure to agree a round of substantive talks will place him under pressure from hawks and pro-Israel groups in Washington to find a new way of confronting Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions, in the first instance, tightened sanctions. "I don't think Obama has much hope," said Mehdi Khalaji from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "but there is no other choice but to try it, and prove to other countries they have tried."

For Iran, it could be facing the real possibility of pariah status, sanctions and the closing of a window of engagement from a relatively friendly administration which is likely to take an increasingly hard line if talks fail. There is even a chance that it might face an Israeli air strike, though several analysts have pointed out that that would not necessarily be an unwelcome development for the Ahmadinejad government, which gains political strength from portraying itself as strong in the face of international hostility.

"They could probably sustain the losses incurred in a surgical strike," said Ali Ansari. The security consequences for the region, however, would be huge. As the diplomats across the world prepare their negotiating positions, the outcome of next week's talks is difficult to predict. All that can be said with certainty is that the stakes are high, particularly for Iran. In a recent article, the commentator Juan Cole argued that the Islamic republic's confidence was misplaced, warning that "further unilateral US sanctions and collective UNSC measures should be taken more seriously than they are by Iran."

* The National