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Two-track Diplomacy on Iran

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: December 18, 2006


More than three months after Iran defied a UN resolution calling for suspension of its uranium enrichment activities, the UN Security Council appears to be close to taking (LAT) punitive steps. A new draft resolution would impose a travel ban and freeze the assets of a dozen top officials in Tehran accused of involvement in its nuclear and ballistic-missile activities as well as soften a ban on missile and technology transfers to Iran. Russia and China have yet to approve the draft but indicate they will endorse it with only a few small fixes and clarifications. Russia’s main concern is that its commercial ties to Tehran not be jeopardized. Moscow refuses to support (USAToday) any resolution that might cut short the completion and fuel supply of a Russian-built light-water reactor at Bushehr or affect a $1 billion sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran. But UN officials say the new draft, less sweeping and punitive than earlier versions, may be ready by year’s end. Once submitted, Iran would be required to comply under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. The aim of the resolution, its backers say, is to force Iran back to the bargaining table. If Tehran complies, sanctions would be reversed.

But Iran shows no signs of scaling back or suspending its nuclear program, which it insists is only for peaceful purposes. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently called for 100,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium by next year (Reuters), 40,000 more than his previous demands. Experts say as many as 3,000 smoothly running P-1 centrifuges are required to produce one nuclear warhead in a year’s time but add that Iran remains years away from this goal. Still, “It’s hard to be optimistic that the UN Security Council is going to come up with a resolution that would exert any real pressure on Iran,” says David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in a recent interview with Bernard Gwertzman.

Meanwhile, there are growing calls in the wake of the Iraq Study Group report to directly engage Iran, along with Syria, on the situation in Iraq. Iranian officials reportedly welcomed the report (TIME) and offered to assist Washington in finding “an honorable way out of Iraq.” Yet some experts say in return for talks on Iraq, Iran might seek a quid pro quo on its nuclear ambitions. Others say negotiations with Tehran or Damascus would not produce positive results. “Talking doesn’t create peace, at least not in the twenty-first century in the Middle East and these ideas just seem very oddly out of place historically and geographically,” Gerald Steinberg, who advises Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Security Council, tells Gwertzman in a new interview. Overtures to Iran might seem especially incongruous at a time when Ahmadinejad continues to indulge what journalist Anne Applebaum calls his “personal passion” (Slate) of Holocaust denial. The Iranian president Tuesday wrapped up a Tehran-based conference that cast doubt on the Nazis’ mass killing of Jews with a prediction that Israel “will be wiped out soon” (AP).

Amid negotiations over Iraq and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Iranians went to the polls on December 15 to vote for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts, a body with powers over Iran’s supreme leader. As this new Backgrounder explains, results are not expected to have a major impact on foreign policy. But reformists were heartened by what they saw as a municipal-level defeat for allies of Ahmadinejad (Reuters). In addition one of the president’s top domestic opponents, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (RFE/RL), considered a pragmatist, was the top vote getter in the elections for the Assembly of Experts.

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