Irate Iran

Iran takes criticism over its nuclear stonewalling. Even the Europeans are piling on.

Fri Mar. 12, 2004 3:00 AM EST

You know your country is internationally isolated when it is being compared -- and not favorably -- to Libya. And that was only the start of the bad news for Iran at this week's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Much to Iran's disappointment, the United States seems to have secured Western European countries' approval of a draft resolution that expresses "most serious concern" that Iran's recent declarations about its nuke activity "did not amount to the correct, complete and final picture of Iran's past and present nuclear program."

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This marks a change of tone. The Europeans are usually much less hard on Iran than is the U.S. And even the U.S. has been pretty upbeat about Iran's recent cooperation in disclosing its nuclear program and allowing I.A.E.A. inspectors to investigate its facilities.

(The U.S. draft is an implicit retreat from George Bush's claim that "rogue states" like Iran have heeded the lessons of his "war on terror" -- with Saddam Hussein serving as an example -- and are mending their ways to avoid the same from happening to them.)

Nothing but "an act of [American] bullying and putting pressure on the others," Pirooz Hosseini, Iran's ambassador to the I.A.E.A, said of the draft. Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi threatened that Iran might cease cooperation with the nuclear watchdog, and rebuked the Europeans for kowtowing to the U.S.:

"We advise the Europeans to respect their obligations and to resist American pressure, otherwise there is no reason for co-operation to continue."

Even the reformist President Mohammad Khatami confirmed the threat in a call to Russia's Putin and insisted that the I.A.E.A. must adopt a "realistic policy and not be influenced" by the United States.

Support for the U.S. draft was secured after the I.A.E.A. presented evidence that Iran's nuclear facilities had traces of highly enriched uranium -- pure enough to be used to produce nuclear weapons –- and that its military had been involved in Iran's supposedly civilian nuclear program. In response, Iran's Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani admitted, for the first time, that the military produced centrifuges to enrich uranium. Shamkhani insisted that this was done for civilian uses only. As for the traces of highly enriched uranium, officials claimed ignorance –- suggesting that it must have been a case of contamination of imported equipment.

The latest U.S. draft resolution is harshly critical of Iran, though even this was toned down a notch from the original. The draft was modified to incorporate the Europeans' insistence that Iran must get a pat on the head for its current cooperation with the I.A.E.A. The head of the I.A.E.A., Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed concern over Foreign Minister Kharrazi's remark that Iran plans to resume its uranium enrichment program "when relations with the I.A.E.A. are normalized." As ElBaradei said:

"Iran has been in breach of its [nuclear non-proliferation] obligations for many years and we need to build confidence. I think suspension is a confidence-building measure and, as I said, Iran needs to do everything possible right now to create the confidence required."

At the same time, ElBaradei praised Iran's recent cooperation:

"Now they [Iranian officials] are cooperating in a very good way with the agency, and I hope we will continue to get Iran's cooperation so we can verify that all their programs are exclusively for peaceful purposes…"

What's behind the Iranian bluster? It suggests in part that hardline conservatives in Iran have been emboldened by their success in last month's parliamentary elections. Then, the un-elected Guardian Council –- vested with the power to rule if laws and politicians conform to Islamic principles –- barred several thousand reformist politicians from registering as candidates. This prompted a sit-in by liberal parliamentarians, some of whom urged the voters to boycott the election -- a call many of their supporters heeded. The hard-liners succeeded in recapturing the parliament in an election that was condemned as neither free nor fair by the international community.

Iran's hardliners may be playing to nationalist sentiment by showing that Iran is not going to take bullying from anyone. For conservatives, Iran's nuclear program is necessary, legitimate, and a matter of national pride. They also deplore what they denounce as the United States' double-standard in nuclear and other policies in the Middle East: financing Israel's nuclear and military prowess, which they consider the region's greater threat, while bullying countries like Iran for pursuing much more moderate nuclear programs.

Whether the confrontation in Vienna will translate into greater support for the hardline cause among the populace is difficult to tell, especially given that harassment of the media and reformist candidates is on the rise. That would be a paradoxical result of U.S. policy toward Iran; but then again, U.S. policy toward Iran has never been short on paradox.