LONDON: Iran and the western powers are on a collision course as the clock ticks towards crucial talks in Paris next week about Tehran’s nuclear programme. Iranian diplomats insist that their country’s development of nuclear technology is for peaceful, civilian purposes only. They say Iran is merely exercising its right, under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to enrich uranium for reactor fuel. But the EU “troika”, comprising Britain, France and Germany, and the Bush administration do not believe them. Brandishing evidence of past concealment gathered by UN inspectors, they suspect that Iran is seeking weapons-grade uranium to build atomic bombs. The talks are highly technical in nature. Yet the basic problem underlying complex disputes about yellowcake and centrifuges is more easily understood. It boils down to an abiding, mutual lack of trust. Unless somebody gives ground soon, the Paris talks between the EU and Iran could mark a parting of the ways.

“The US is using the nuclear issue as a pretext for regime change,” a senior Iranian official said this week. “The issue is a diversion. The US wants to weaken Iran. Even if the nuclear issue was solved, they would want another thing and another thing.”

Iran had agreed on a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment as a confidence-building measure, not a complete cessation, the official said. And the suspension would not necessarily last much longer.

President Mohammad Khatami drove the point home in Isfahan this week: “Cessation of these activities is unacceptable to us. If the Europeans insist ... whatever happens after, the responsibility lies with them.”

Determined not to repeat its North Korea mistakes, the US is equally adamant that Iran must give way before it acquires full nuclear weapons capabilities. “It really is now up to the Iranians to do what they need to do,” Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, warned.

By offering limited incentives to Iran for the first time last week, she said the US had “forged a common front with Europe ... I’m sure it makes the Iranians uncomfortable.”

Stephen Hadley, the US national security adviser, dismissed Iran’s proffered “objective guarantees”. “The best guarantee is to permanently abandon their enrichment facilities,” he said.

Stuck in the middle, the EU is in the increasingly awkward position of holding the ring between Tehran and Washington, which is not directly involved in the talks. While it worries about Iran, Europe’s bottom line is avoiding an Iraq-style rift with the US.

British officials are urging Tehran to agree to an indefinite suspension of enrichment while talks on trade and normalization issues proceed. “Like history, diplomacy never ends,” a senior official said. But this approach does not recommend itself to Washington neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, who assert that only regime change in Tehran can ultimately solve the problem.

“The belief that there’s a diplomatic solution to be had here is increasingly the triumph of hope over experience,” the Wall Street Journal commented. On the American right, distrust also extends to the EU, whose leadership on Iran is resented and whose post-Iraq solidarity is doubted.

Iranian officials have been quick to suggest that by agreeing with the US to carpet Iran in the UN security council if incentives flop and the talks fail, the troika is walking into trap.

“The Americans are trying to create an environment so the US can hit Iran,” one diplomat said. “And I don’t think the Europeans would ultimately accept this.”

That could be a serious miscalculation. But any Iranian attempt to play the EU off against America would test Europe’s unity of purpose. Mr Khatami is due to visit the French president, Jacques Chirac, next month.

British diplomats point out that the Iranians have long sought US engagement. Now it is forthcoming, they say, Tehran detects a plot.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.

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