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WASHINGTON, Oct 2 2009 (IPS) - Thursday’s seven-party talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear programme resulted in a breakthrough agreement on Russian enrichment of materials Tehran needs for nuclear-medical work.
Proponents say that step considerably reduces western fears that Tehran was heading for nuclear weapons, and is a good move toward rebuilding the long-broken confidence between Tehran and most western governments.
It also reveals the degree to which western governments now find they must take due account of non-western powers like Russia and China, rather than continuing to allow their policies to be dictated by the more hawkish tendencies among their own citizenries.
In Geneva, chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili said the meeting “created a good opportunity for fresh cooperation to remove international concerns”.
Here in Washington, Pres. Barack Obama described the agreement reached in Geneva as “a constructive beginning”, but noted that further hard work still lies ahead.
Under the Geneva agreement, Iran will export to Russia around 80 percent of the uranium gas that it has now enriched to around three percent of the nuclear-useful U235 isotope. Russia will further enrich it to just under 19 percent and (using some French technology) convert it into the form of solid fuel rods.
In Geneva, Tehran also pledged to allow full inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of all its nuclear facilities, including the small facility near Qom whose existence it reported Sep. 21.
IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei is expected to travel to Tehran on Saturday to follow up on the agreements reached in Geneva.
Obama himself had contributed to the constructive outcome in Geneva, in at least two ways. One was through the contacts his negotiators conducted over recent weeks with Russia and others of the six nations that met the Iranians in Geneva – contacts which helped work out the nature of the Russian-French plan.
The six nations are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (P5), plus Germany.
The other way Obama contributed to the talks’ success was by allowing his negotiator there, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, to hold an informal, 45-minute meeting one-on-one with chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili.
Other members of the U.S. team also held similar “side-meetings” in Geneva with their Iranian counterparts, amidst unconfirmed speculation that those talks covered other aspects of the two countries’ relations. (Speculation about more far-reaching negotiations was also fueled by a mysterious, two-hour visit that Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki made to Washington on Wednesday.)
The only time that Pres. George W. Bush allowed a U.S. official to participate in P5+1 talks with Iran was in July 2008. But that official was permitted to interact with the Iranian negotiators only in the full plenary session, and to discuss nothing other than Iran’s nuclear programme.
Those earlier talks reached no agreement – not even on the holding of follow-up talks.
In Thursday’s talks, by contrast, Washington gave the U.S. negotiators far more room for real engagement with the Iranians. That engagement resulted in the attainment of the two agreements which mandate a number of activities that can provide readily verifiable evidence of the good faith (or otherwise) of all sides.
For western governments previously wary that Iran was working to amass enough partially enriched uranium to allow the building of a nuclear weapon within a short time period, the removal of most of Iran’s present stock of three percent-enriched uranium from any possibility of weaponisation buys time in which the broader relationship between Iran and the west can be healed.
In addition, as the Russian-French enrichment plan gets underway, that can provide valuable assurance to the Tehran government that these and other P5+1 governments are willing to help Tehran meet its long-stated needs in the nuclear technology field.
Iran has always said its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. Supreme Leader Ali al-Khamenei has issued a fatwa (religious decree) describing the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons as “forbidden under Islam”.
Many in the U.S. right wing who believe strongly in the use of U.S. or U.S.-Israeli military power have expressed predictable criticisms of the Geneva agreement. Pres. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, warned darkly that Tehran has now “got the United States ensnared in negotiations”.
However, the fulminations of people like Bolton underline the big changes that have occurred since Obama’s election – not just in the policies pursued by Washington but also in the degree to which Washington policymakers now more clearly understand the shifting balance in world politics.
Russia and China have been wary for more than 20 years now of the western powers’ push to isolate, attack, or even subvert the Islamic government in Iran. In the past, they were also wary of the very similar campaign Washington maintained against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – right up to the point in 2003 when U.S. forces invaded Iraq and directly toppled him from power.
In 2003, Russia and China were unable (both in strictly military terms, and in terms of global power equations) to block the invasion of Iraq. But since 2003, Russia has stabilised its internal governance considerably from the chaotic state it was still in at that time, and China has continued its steady rise to greater power on the world scene.
Two developments over the past year have underlined, for many U.S. strategic planners, the stark facts of the United States’ deep interdependence with these two significant world powers. One was last autumn’s collapse of the financial markets in New York and other financial centres around the world, which revealed the extent of the dependence the west’s financial system has on China’s (mainly governmental) investors.
The other turning point has been the serious challenges the U.S. faced in its campaigns against Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Earlier this year, Pakistani-based Islamist militants mounted such extensive attacks against convoys carrying desperately needed supplies to U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan that Washington was forced to sign an agreement with Moscow to open alternative supply routes through Russia.
Russia and China both have significant interests in Iran, which they are now clearly unwilling to jeopardise simply in order to appease Washington.
This year, China is reportedly on track to import 15 percent of its crude oil needs from Iran, up from 12 percent last year. In March, the two countries signed a 3.3-billion-dollar deal to develop some of Iran’s natural gas fields.
Earlier this week, influential former Chinese diplomat Sun Bigan underlined the importance of Middle East hydrocarbon to Beijing in an essay in a state-published, Mandarin-language journal.
“The U.S. has always sought to control the faucet of global oil supplies,” Sun wrote. “There is cooperation between China and the U.S., but there is also struggle, and the U.S. has always seen us as a potential foe.”
Sun recently retired as Beijing’s special envoy on the Middle East. Before that, he served terms as China’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran.
His comments to the journal underscored the weight that China’s Communist Party rulers now give to the Middle East as a place to prevent any further expansion of Washington’s global power.
The websites of state-controlled Chinese media provide more evidence of Beijing’s growing concern with, and understanding of, the Middle East. On the “Top Stories” page of the “China View” site, no fewer than nine of the top 20 stories Friday were from the region – covering developments in Iraq, and Israel-Palestine, as well as Iran.
Thursday brought dramatic evidence of the growing weight of non-western powers in policies toward Iran. What is still unclear is when there will be evidence of any parallel growth in their influence in Arab-Israeli peace diplomacy.
*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org
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