New York Times: Iran and its European partners pledged Monday to work to overcome their differences and lingering suspicions as they began negotiations for a long-term agreement on nuclear, economic and security cooperation.
New York Times

By ELAINE SCIOLINO

BRUSSELS - Iran and its European partners pledged Monday to work to overcome their differences and lingering suspicions as they began negotiations for a long-term agreement on nuclear, economic and security cooperation.

The largely ceremonial talks among Iran's senior nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, and the foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany flow from Iran's agreement last month to freeze its programs to make enriched uranium, which is useful either for producing energy or making bombs.

To throw the weight of the European Union behind the process, Javier Solana, the group's foreign policy chief, also took part in the meeting on Monday.

"The negotiations we are embarking upon today can be indicative of the new chapter of our relations, not only with the three European countries, but with the European Union as a whole," Mr. Rowhani, the midlevel cleric who leads Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said at a news conference at the residence of the British ambassador to the European Union.

He added, "Our intention here is through political dialogue, we will establish such confidence that there will be no concern left for anyone."

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, said: "All of us here share a determination to see progress. Some of the issues are of course difficult. But we're all committed to a successful outcome of the process."

The talks that opened Monday are being conducted on two tracks, one to make the freeze permanent, another to explore concrete ways to reward Iran if it does so. At the Iranian Embassy on Monday night, specialists from both sides began talks in three working groups on nuclear, economic and security issues.

But the hopeful words on Monday did not mask the challenges both sides face in making the necessary gestures to build trust and sustain and fulfill the agreement reached last month.

The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, sounded a more cautious tone before the talks began. "We must move forward step by step on the basis of realism," he told reporters.

Most difficult, European and Iranian negotiators said, will be for Iran to meet its commitment under the agreement to provide "objective guarantees," that is, clear proof, that its nuclear program can be used only for peaceful purposes.

The Europeans, in turn, will find it challenging to deliver on some of the more ambitious rewards they have discussed with Iran partly because they depend on the cooperation of the United States, but the Bush administration is in no mood to offer Iran incentives. That was underscored Monday, when the administration blocked Iran's application to open membership talks with the World Trade Organization.

In a meeting in Geneva, the General Council of the 148-nation trade organization agreed by consensus to accept applications from Iraq and Afghanistan, but rejected Iran's application for the 16th consecutive time.

Supporting Iran's eventual membership in the W.T.O. is one of the potential incentives that the Europeans are offering.

Another challenge is that Iran insists that it is freezing its uranium enrichment programs temporarily. Mr. Rowhani indicated that the next three months would be crucial in indicating whether the initiative should continue, and has warned recently that Iran will restart its nuclear cycle if the Europeans do not act in good faith.

He and other Iranian officials also correctly point out that Iran is not obligated under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to freeze these activities and is doing so on a voluntary basis to illustrate its good will.

The Europeans, by contrast, hope to make the temporary freeze in Iran's enrichment activities permanent in return for trade, aid and security rewards. They say that the talks will take much longer than a few months.

The Europeans are also caught in a difficult situation with the United States. The Bush administration contends that Iran has a covert program to build nuclear bombs and has stated repeatedly that it wants the United Nations Security Council to slap it with either censure or economic penalties.

But in the absence of international support for such an approach, the administration has yet to come up with a clear, consistent strategy on Iran.

Some Bush administration officials, speaking anonymously, have poured scorn on the European initiative, while others have expressed skepticism or offered only qualified support.

In meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna this month, for example, the American delegation openly criticized the agreement with the Europeans as "flawed" and "flimsy," while pushing unsuccessfully for a tougher resolution.

But at a meeting with Mr. Solana and other European Union officials in The Hague last Friday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States was "supportive" of the European initiative with Iran, according to a senior European official who was present and official notes of the meeting.

When Mr. Solana told Mr. Powell that the Europeans might need the help of the United States in putting the agreement into effect, Mr. Powell replied that he felt comfortable with the current "division of labor" between the Europeans, who are doing the negotiating, and the United States, which is staying on the sidelines.

Mr. Powell also noted that the objective of the United States and the Europeans was the same to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power although their methods were different, and he wished the Europeans luck with their negotiations, the European official said.

In conversations in Brussels 10 days ago, Stephen J. Hadley, who will take over as the Bush administration's national security adviser, expressed skepticism that a strategy to moderate Iran's behavior with incentives would work, according to people who met with him. But he also said he was pleased that the Europeans had achieved as much as they had in freezing Iran's enrichment program.

"The Americans may be reluctant and skeptical, but in general terms they are supportive," one European Union official said.

The Europeans and the Iranians know that the United States can scuttle almost any agreement they may reach.

For example, the Europeans are eager to persuade Iran to abandon the construction of a heavy-water reactor designed to produce plutonium, which can be used as fuel for nuclear weapons as well as for energy, in exchange for a light-water reactor.

But only a few countries in the world, including the United States, France and Russia, make light-water reactors. Even if the Europeans were willing to approve the technology, the United States holds some of the patents on the technology and could block the deal.

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