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Europe, US Grapple With Iranian Nuclear Issue

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently concluded a trip to Europe aimed at improving relations between the two sides. While the trip helped mend fences between Washington and its traditional allies, some contentious issues still remain.

For the past several years, three European governments: Britain, France and Germany have been very active in negotiations with Iran aimed at halting Tehran's uranium enrichment program, which could be used to build nuclear weapons. The United States believes Iran is seeking to develop nuclear arms, but Tehran says its program is aimed at producing fuel for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear power generation.

Last November, Iran agreed to temporarily stop enriching uranium, while it is engaged in talks with the three European governments that hope to turn that freeze into a permanent reality. The Europeans also want Tehran to open its nuclear program to full international inspections. In return, Iran will be offered economic and trade incentives and nuclear fuel supplies for peaceful ventures.

During Condoleezza Rice's trip to Europe last week, Iran was high on the agenda for her talks with European leaders. After meeting NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Ms. Rice told reporters Iran should be forthcoming with the Europeans, especially in opening up all its nuclear facilities to inspections.

"We and the Europeans talk all the time about the importance of sending a strong message to the Iranians that they are being given an opportunity to demonstrate that they are prepared to live up those obligations,” she said. “So I think the message is there. The Iranians need to get that message. And we can certainly always remind them that there are other steps that the international community has at its disposal should they not be prepared to live up to those obligations."

One of those steps is to refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. That could happen if the European talks with Iran fail. But there have also been reports that the U.S. might be contemplating other measures, such as military action against Iran. During her European trip, Ms. Rice said that is "not on the agenda at this point."

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter says Europe and the United States are divided on how far to push the Iranian government.

"It's striking that the secretary of state put that issue front and center on her trip, even though she did underscore that the U.S. has no interest, or plan at this point - ‘at this point’- as she underscored, of using military force against Iran. The fact that she brought it front and center does raise, for the Europeans, one - the depth of U.S. concern, but secondly, that this is an issue on which U.S. and most opinion in Europe among governments differ. The Europeans do want to see a more forthcoming diplomatic process. The United States is willing to give it some time, perhaps, but there is no meeting of the minds across the Atlantic yet on this particular matter," he said.

The Europeans want the United States to get involved in their talks with Iran, but so far Washington has refused. During her trip to Europe, Ms. Rice said Washington is confronting Tehran "in a variety of ways" with "a variety of different partners."

Former State Department official Bruce Jentleson fears Washington's non-participation could have a negative effect.

"One of the questions has been whether the United States would work within the framework set up by the ‘EU-3’ [Britain, France, Germany] negotiations because only we can address some of the security concerns Iran has. So far the Bush administration keeps saying, ‘No, we don't want to get involved in that.’ And at the same time they are saying that if diplomacy fails, we may have to take other action. I worry a lot that the diplomacy may fail not because it could not succeed, but because the Bush administration continued to undermine it by not being willing to get involved in ways that only the United States can do," he explained.

For his part, Charles Kupchan, Director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York believes the Bush administration still has to decide what it wants to do with Iran.

"There are clearly those who do not trust the Iranians and therefore favor some sort of either military action or regime change, because they believe that the Iranians are hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. “There are other elements within the administration that favor the European Union approach, that is to say to present incentives for Tehran to give up its uranium enrichment/plutonium reprocessing capabilities and to accept supplies of fuel from the outside. For now, this leaves the Bush administration as a bystander, letting the EU take the lead on negotiations. If those negotiations fail, there will clearly be a new round of transatlantic tension over what to do next."

Discussions between Britain, France and Germany on the one hand and Iran on the other continue. But experts say they cannot go on indefinitely. They say some positive movement must take place in the near future, otherwise the Bush administration may become impatient and tensions may increase not only between Washington and the EU, but in the Middle East as well.