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Tehran can't get its story straight

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

The possibility of direct talks between the United States and Iran during an international conference on Iraq—now looking extremely unlikely—has overshadowed Iran's bizarre, but potentially more consequential maneuverings at a preparatory meeting for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The first baffling incident occurred on Tuesday at the NPT conference, where Iran—which is a signatory to the treaty—blocked a provisional agenda from being adopted. The Iranian delegation objected to the phrase (pdf) affirming "the need for full compliance with the Treaty." So far, the move has kept most of the conference's substantive work from moving forward. Iran has long maintained that all its nuclear activities are in compliance with the treaty, so this was a particularly odd move on the part of the Iranians, who didn't publicly explain their actions at the time.

Then on Wednesday, Iran's representatives indicated the problem was a matter of emphasis. They could approve the agenda, they said, if the statement on compliance specifies that it also applies to disarmament by nuclear weapons states. The NPT already calls explicitly for disarmament, however, so Iran's move looks like a clumsy, albeit familiar attempt to refocus attention onto the United States and other nuclear weapons states. If that is really the case, though, why did Iran wait a day to reveal its motivations, with so many upset by its move? Even Iran's traditional sympathizers on the NPT—such as Cuba, Egypt, and South Africa—were reportedly "urging Tehran to modify its stance." The talks are now said to be on the brink of collapse, as Iran has refused to budge.

So what's going on? Iran's diplomats could be overwhelmed and making mistakes. More likely, they are getting conflicting orders. Consider the international conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Iran and the United States had both hinted earlier this week that they might be willing to participate in direct talks on the margins of the conference. Talks were apparently the subject of "heated debate" in Tehran, but the hardline view—that "conditions are not ripe at the present time for talks"—looks to be the last word. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki merely exchanged pleasantries over lunch, and last night Mottaki skipped a dinner where he was to be seated opposite Rice. During their only encounter earlier in the day, the Iranian foreign minister had explained his coolness toward Condi with this cryptic message:

In Russia, they eat ice cream in winter because it's warmer than the weather."

In other words, "Take what you can get." The hardliners may have the upper hand for now, but Iran's confusion suggests that a U.S. strategy of engagement can at least spark a healthy debate in Tehran. Whether that will pay off in the nuclear standoff or in Iraq remains to be seen, however.


Eric Hundman is a science fellow at the Center for Defense Information. His research focuses on emerging technology, terrorism and nuclear policy, including the conventionalization of nuclear forces. He contributes a series of posts for Passport on nuclear technology called "Nuke Notes."

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