The new US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, is due to make his first visit to Israel on Sunday amid fresh warnings from the country’s leaders that time is running out to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. Here, in a provocative article based on his controversial new book, Peter Oborne shows how the West turned down a precious opportunity to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis eight years ago, and argues that it is western rather than Iranian intransigence that prevents a deal being struck today.
It was the early spring of 2005 and a team of British, French and German diplomats were arriving at the magnificent French foreign ministry at the Quai d’Orsay on the left bank of the Seine.
But the splendour of the Second Empire building did not match their mood. The negotiating team, which included the high-flying John Sawers (now Sir John, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service), had been fruitlessly searching for a solution to the Iranian nuclear stand-off for more than a year.
There seemed to be no solution. The European negotiators, under massive pressure from the United States, were adamant that Iran must give up its uranium enrichment programme.
For the Iranians these demands seemed an intolerable humiliation for a sovereign state, and a classic manifestation of the western imperialism that had humiliated their ancient country for centuries.
The meeting had been under way for approximately 20 minutes, with no progress, when suddenly the face of the leader of the Iranian negotiating team, Javad Zarif, was wreathed in smiles.
“We have a proposal to show you,” he said. “It is an entirely unofficial idea. It has not been discussed or approved by our masters in Tehran. But perhaps it might be something we can talk about.”
After these preliminary words, the Iranians delivered a PowerPoint presentation which amazed the European negotiating team. It was the basis of a deal and one, moreover, that offered genuine benefits for both sides, though both sides would have to make compromises as well.
Briefly, in the gilded 19th-century Parisian salon, a resolution of the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the west felt entirely possible.
The Iranians explained that they were not prepared to abandon their plans to develop centrifuge enrichment technology on Iranian soil. But in return for carrying on with their enrichment programme they proposed unprecedented measures to guarantee that they would never divert peaceful nuclear technology for military use.
They offered a solemn pledge that Iran would remain bound by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) — which obliges member states to subject their nuclear facilities to external inspection — for as long as it existed.
They said that Iran’s religious leaders would repudiate nuclear weapons.
They put on the negotiating table a series of voluntary restrictions on the size and output of the enrichment programme.
And they offered inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority improved oversight of all nuclear activities in Iran.
The European diplomats allowed not a trace of emotion to show on their faces. But one official recalls thinking that “what we had just heard was a most interesting offer. We realised that what we had just heard was a valid and coherent proposal that was in full conformity with relevant international treaty provisions.”
This diplomat adds today that “trust was not an issue, because over the preceding 18 months we had got to know our Iranian counterparts and had acquired confidence in the Iranians’ ability to honour their commitments”.
When the Iranians had finished their presentation, the Europeans asked for a break so that they could discuss the proposal among themselves. Once on their own they agreed that there was no way that the Iranian offer would be acceptable to their political masters in Europe.
One witness puts the problem like this: “There was not the faintest chance that President George W Bush’s Republican advisers and Israeli allies would allow him to look benignly on such a deal. On the contrary, if the Europeans were to defy American wishes, they would be letting themselves in for a transatlantic row to end all rows.” So when they came back to the negotiating table one hour later they were studiously non-committal. They spoke highly of the Iranian offer, but asked for time so that their governments could consider it.
And when Sir John Sawers took the Iranian offer back to London it was very quickly forgotten. According to Foreign Office sources, Tony Blair intervened to make sure that it went no further. Later Sir John explained to Seyed Hossein Mousavian, spokesman of the Iranian nuclear negotiation team, why the offer could not be taken up. “Washington would never tolerate the operation of even one centrifuge in Iran,” he told Mr Mousavian, according to the latter’s memoirs.
So the peace proposal from the Iranian negotiators was killed stone dead even though the European negotiating team realised that it was both very well judged and in full conformity with international law. “This was an extraordinary sleight of hand by the EU,” says one European diplomat who was close to the negotiations.
The European diplomats came back with their counter-proposal to Iran for on 5 August 2005. The terms were humiliating. They required Iran to make “a binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities other than the construction and operation of light-water power and research reactors”. In other words, all enrichment and related activities on Iranian soil had to cease for good.
This meant that the UK, France and Germany had broken a commitment they had made at the outset of negotiations to recognise Iran’s legal right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, subject always to “objective guarantees”.
Yet more than once during these negotiations, Iran made proposals to the EU3 offering “objective guarantees” that its nuclear programme would be peaceful – including the continuous on-site presence at the conversion and enrichment facilities of inspectors from the IAEA, the international nuclear watchdog. Nevertheless, the EU3 did not accept the plan as a basis for negotiation, simply leaving it to wither on the vine.
In a speech to the United Nations on 17 September 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made Iran’s most remarkable offer of all. He suggested that Iran’s enrichment programme be managed by an international consortium, with Iran agreeing shared ownership with other countries. Once again, this offer was rejected out of hand by the EU and the United States.
This EU intransigence meant that Iran was being invidiously singled out as the only party to the NPT that was forbidden to have uranium enrichment on its own soil.
It was no surprise therefore that Iran rejected these proposals out of hand. As a result the country restarted its nuclear programme — with the consequences we are living with today. An historic opportunity was lost for Europe to come to a comprehensive settlement with Iran on a wide range of issues.
It is reasonable to conclude that the EU states were not interested in devising “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes”. So what is going on? Why all the anger, the endless barrage of rhetoric and the ruthless drive to isolate Iran, which has led to the sanctions that are reportedly driving millions of Iranians to the brink of poverty and despair?
The answer is that a different agenda is at work, which we believe has little or nothing to do with Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons. The US and its European clients are driven by a different compulsion: the humiliation and eventual destruction of Iran’s Islamic regime.
Confrontation with Iran is unnecessary.
As the settlement proposed by the Iranians at the Quai d’Orsay suggests, Iran is prepared to deal with the West. It is the West that has repeatedly refused to accept the peace entreaties of the Iranian and refused to deal with Iran on reasonable terms.
Some senior figures have recognised this. In a most encouraging interview with the Financial Times in June 2009, Senator John Kerry, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the inflexibility on Iran by the former Bush administration as “bombastic diplomacy” that had “wasted energy” and “hardened the lines”.
Under the NPT, Iran had “a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose”, he said. If these views of John Kerry in 2009 were to become the US policy propounded by Secretary of State Kerry in 2013, the prospects for a settlement with Iran on the nuclear issue would be excellent.
It is bitterly ironic that any deal struck by the United States with Iran along the lines Mr Kerry suggested in 2009 would acknowledge Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power — and therefore be nearly identical to the one offered by Iran negotiators at the Quai d’Orsay in 2005, and contemptuously turned down by the West.
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