TEHRAN â€” Western diplomats are confident Iran has chosen a pragmatic line in negotiations over its nuclear programme and say a long-term deal is possible with the EU, and eventually the United States, if they can come up with the right incentives.
In recent months the Islamic republic has been engaged in brinksmanship over the issue, threatening to end its suspension of uranium enrichment activities in defiance of a deal with Britain, France and Germany.
But at the same time, as diplomats acknowledge and the Iranians complain, the so-called EU-3 have yet to offer the tantalizing incentives that would convince the clerical regime to abandon its sensitive work.
Perhaps the most telling sign that the pragmatic approach is the strongest current in Iran is the campaigning ahead of the June 17 elections, during which no candidate has attempted to make political capital from the nuclear issue.
Almost without exception, all of the eight candidates â€” including the four hardliners â€” are standing by what they say is Iran’s “natural right” to have a nuclear energy programme.
But none of them has directly challenged the negotiating process with the Europeans by demanding an immediate resumption of sensitive nuclear fuel cycle work â€” the focus of international suspicions the clerical regime is seeking the bomb.
“On the one side the Iranians are acting like carpet dealers. They have something they know the Europeans want, and they want a good price,” a Tehran-based Western diplomat told AFP.
“But on the other side the Europeans are acting like used car dealers. So far they haven’t managed to put together a convincing package that would make the Iranians interested in a deal,” he joked. “We’re in a stage where both sides are haggling. And that in itself is a good sign.” Under a deal struck in Paris last November, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment activities, which could be directed towards making weapons, and enter into negotiations towards a long-term solution to the nuclear tensions.
In return for “objective guarantees” from Iran that it will not develop weapons, the three Europeans are proposing political and economic incentives.
The EU seems to want a “Libya-style” arrangement along the lines of the 2003 accord in which Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi agreed to abandon his weapons of mass destruction programme and Britain and the United States ended his pariah status.
So far, however, the Iranians are not biting the carrots that have so far been offered â€” a trade agreement with the EU, the opening of entry talks for the World Trade Organisation and spare parts for its fleet of civilian airplanes.
These incentives have already been dismissed by Iran as a “joke.”
One politician said it would be like exchanging a “pearl for a sweet,” but as an EU diplomat close to the rolle-rcoaster negotiations explained, “the important thing is that they are sticking to the negotiating process.”
But the talks are also in a state of deadlock. Iran is standing by its wish to one day resume fuel cycle work, which it insists is only for atomic energy purposes, and the Europeans pressing the country to abandon it altogether.
“But there is a sense that the regime has decided to adopt a pragmatic approach to the issue,” said the diplomat. “At the moment they are saying ‘no incentive is big enough’, but in reality they are saying ‘raise your offer’.
“Many of the proposed incentives, such as security guarantees (for Iran), to a large extent depend on the Americans. At some point along the line the Americans will have to start putting things on the table,” the diplomat said.
Iran and the Europeans agreed to give themselves breathing space after a high-level meeting in Geneva last month, and the negotiating process has effectively been put on hold until after the presidential election.
Tipped as the favourite is top cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He is a pragmatic conservative and consummate deal-maker seen as favouring rapprochement with the West.