By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran might be willing to give up its uranium enrichment capabilities but it wants many things in return -- above all a guarantee that no one will try to topple the Islamic regime, diplomats and analysts say.
North Korea has demanded similar security assurances from Washington, which listed both Tehran and Pyongyang as members of an "axis of evil," in exchange for relinquishing its atom bomb program. Iran's nuclear ambitions will be discussed at a meeting of senior officials from the Group of Eight (G8) industrial nations in Washington on Friday.
France, Britain and Germany have been struggling to persuade Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program, which could be used to develop highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. They will present their plan for a "carrot and stick" approach to Iran to the G8 meeting.
Unlike Washington, the Europeans do not publicly accuse Iran of pursuing weapons. But they are not convinced Tehran's intentions are necessarily peaceful, as Iran insists, and want enrichment activities ended.
Tehran agreed last October to suspend its enrichment program. While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran has not enriched any uranium, it never froze key related activities, such as the production of enrichment centrifuges and the processing of uranium for enrichment.
"Iran wants some political steps to be taken first," said a Western diplomat in Vienna familiar with the negotiations between Iran and the European trio.
Iran's top requirement was an "assurance of the status quo," he said, meaning a guarantee that there would be no Iraq-style "regime change" undertaken in Iran, which has been an Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution.
While this was not a problem for the Europeans, diplomats said Washington would have trouble assuring Iran that it would not try to topple their regime.
Iran also wants a guarantee that it can maintain a peaceful nuclear program and full economic and diplomatic ties with the West, diplomats close to the EU-Iran talks told Reuters.
Last month, the IAEA passed a resolution calling on Iran to freeze its enrichment program and all related activities, but Tehran has refused to budge, insisting enrichment is its sovereign right.
Diplomats said Iran might try to strike a last-minute deal with Europe to avoid a referral to the U.N. Security Council when the IAEA meets again next month but the Europeans will not compromise.
"Iran knows what it has to do to open relations with the EU," said one diplomat. "They have to suspend the enrichment program. Otherwise they'll go to the Security Council."
WORRIES ABOUT IRAQ
The Iraq war has unnerved Iran, diplomats and intelligence officials told Reuters in numerous interviews.
According to one non-U.S. diplomat, it was the war on Iraq that convinced Tehran it must go for an atomic weapon.
"Iranian leaders got together after the Iraq war and decided that the reason North Korea was not attacked was because it has the bomb. Iraq was attacked because it did not," the diplomat said, citing intelligence reports gathered by his country.
Until this week, the administration of President Bush has characterized the EU trio's initiative with Iran as a failure and accused Tehran of dragging out the negotiations to buy time as it raced in secret to get an atomic weapon.
Some analysts have become very critical of the Bush administration's stance on Iran, saying its confrontational approach based on threats and accusations has been a failure.
David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and head of a Washington think-tank, agrees with this view. He also said there was room to offer Tehran a bigger "carrot" if would give up its uranium enrichment program.
"Iran could be offered an EU trade agreement as an initial incentive, for example," Albright told Reuters.
He said the U.S. decision to "stop throwing stones" at the EU initiative with Iran was a major departure from U.S. policy until now and could give the EU trio the kind of diplomatic weight is has been sorely lacking until now.
Iran Wants Guarantee of No 'Regime Change'-Diplomats
Fri Oct 15, 2004 08:39 AM ET
By Louis Charbonneau