World view - Bronwen Maddox calls time on Iran

Iran has agreed to put its nuclear weapons plans on ice until August. But then what?

Iran's elections in two weeks' time (17 June) to pick a new president will take place, it now seems, unclouded by the row over its nuclear ambitions.

In an exceptionally worldly piece of diplomacy, the European Union has agreed that the whole question will be put on ice until August. It half hopes that a moderate leader it can deal with might have emerged by then.

As a tactic, it's the best one going: buying time, in one sliver after another. One Foreign Office official said to me wearily: "We're buying the same carpet, again and again." He added: "Mind you, they think they haven't been paid for the carpet in the first place."

Europe's attempt to persuade Iran not to equip itself with nuclear weapons is the most interesting test of diplomacy going: whether, through threats and bribes, it can persuade Iran to step off a path to which it appears committed. I have not heard any western officials say they believe Iran's claim that it wants fuel only for nuclear reactors, not weapons.

I have followed these talks since Iran's secret nuclear programme was exposed by dissidents three years ago, and I don't think it's an entirely lost cause. At least some in the Iranian government talk the language of a deal. They know the cost to Iran of international hostility, and they have a keen eye on what they might extract in return for giving way.

And buying time itself isn't a pointless aim. You don't have to be a romantic - hoping for a benign regime suddenly to take the place of the ayatollahs - to think that the strong pro-western feelings among many Iranians will eventually influence their government's stance.

Watching the current stalemate, however, I wonder if the west is offering Tehran enough. In the past year, the threat that the US might launch military action against Iran has vanished, given the American predicament in Iraq. Israel is certainly keen to keep the impression alive that it might do so. But few officials think this is realistic, given how diffuse - and hidden - Iran's nuclear sites are thought to be.

The threat of referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council remains, but no one is very clear what might then follow. Given this, the "rewards" offered to Iran for changing course might now have to be raised.

The latest talks in May between the EU and Iran in Geneva illustrate the paralysis perfectly. For two years, Britain, France and Germany have taken it on themselves together to try to persuade Iran to back down, in the face of American scepticism.

At the Iranian ambassador's house high above Lake Geneva, the Europeans assembled on one side of a narrow mahogany table: Jack Straw, his French and German counterparts Michel Barnier and Joschka Fischer, the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and a dozen advisers and other aides.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, sat on the other side with six colleagues and his favourite translator, a man who maintains a steady, sweet smile while uttering all the phrases of nuclear brinkmanship.

Despite the main players' familiarity with each other - they have met every few months for two years - the talks were immediately tense, as Iran said it planned to restart controversial work. At one point, Fischer pulled out the text of the "Paris Agreement" Iran signed last year, jabbing his finger at it, and saying: "Look what it says here."

After two hours: stalemate. Iran insisted on retaining a "pilot" plant; Europe said "no". The Iranians retreated to a small room; the Europeans huddled under the trees on the lawns. Then Iran backed down, and in return Europe said it would set out, by early August, the shape of a final deal on the work it thought Iran might retain.

This is a non-deal: simply a decision not to bring the row to a head this month. Yet it seems impossible to break the jam without more intervention from the US, together with more clarity on what referral to the Security Council might cost Iran, and more encouragement on trade and security guarantees if it chose the other, non-nuclear path.

The European approach has worked so far, sort of. But it is hard now to see the stakes - either threats or offers - being raised high enough to clinch a deal without the US taking a central part.

Bronwen Maddox is foreign editor of the Times

Michela Wrong is away

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