Trade Group to Start Talks to Admit Iran


By Elaine Sciolino

New York Times
May 27, 2005

The World Trade Organization announced on Thursday that it would start talks to admit Iran as a member, an apparent reward for Tehran's agreement to continue to freeze its nuclear activities. The decision came after the United States, in a small but important conciliatory gesture toward Iran, dropped its longstanding opposition to Iranian membership in the world body that governs global trade. "It is a long-overdue decision, but it is a positive decision," said Mohammad Reza Alborzi, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, in a telephone interview. "We have a Persian proverb, 'A fish is always fresh, even if it is caught when you go fishing late in the day."'

In Washington, Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman, said that the timing of the American decision on Iran's WTO membership process was "not totally coincidental." He noted that the talks between the Europeans and the Iranians on Wednesday "demonstrates that efforts to achieve a peaceful, diplomatic solution on the Iran nuclear issue do continue." Joining the WTO offers countries access to a club of nations that are attempting under current negotiations to reduce tariffs on trade in goods and services. The WTO also settles trade disputes between members and offers technical assistance to developing nations. The United States, which accuses Iran of secretly developing nuclear weapons, has vetoed its efforts to join the WTO since it first applied in 1996. Even though politics is not supposed to play a role in issues relating to WTO membership, both the Clinton and Bush administrations used the WTO veto as one of an array of U.S. economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Since the global trading body, which currently has 148 countries as members, votes by consensus, the United States alone was able to block Iran more than 20 times over the years. President George W. Bush reversed that policy and also agreed to consider sales of commercial aircraft parts in March after European leaders warned him that their nuclear negotiations with Iran would fail unless the United States joined Europe in a common bargaining position. An array of Iranian officials dismissed the American gestures as too small to be significant.

Under a preliminary accord reached with Iran last November, France, Germany and Britain promised Iran an array of economic, political and security benefits in exchange for Iran's "objective guarantees" that its nuclear program is totally peaceful. In the economic sphere, the benefits included helping Iran gain membership in the WTO, the promotion of private investment and technical help or cooperation in automobiles, telecommunications, civil aviation, agriculture and other fields.

In Geneva on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the three countries persuaded Iran to continue its freeze on nuclear activities, averting a diplomatic crisis that could have led to punitive international measures against Iran. In exchange, the Europeans offered to present Iran with detailed, step-by-step proposals by early August at the latest on how to move toward consensus on the shape of Iran's nuclear program.

Before Wednesday's meeting, Iran had threatened to restart uranium conversation activities at its vast Isfahan site, citing its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and complaining about lack of progress in the talks. Had Iran carried out its threat, the Europeans told the Iranians they would continue to be blocked in the WTO. In a reply to the threat in a letter signed by the three foreign ministers and Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief who also participates in the talks, they warned Iran that restarting work would violate the Paris agreement and force them to recommend Iran for censure. The letter specifically mentioned Europe's support for the WTO, saying, "This sort of progress will be jeopardized if Iran now moves away from the Paris agreement."

The decision Thursday does not mean that Iran will easily gain entry into the WTO. Membership takes years and requires a broad range of economic and political reforms. Some 30 countries, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, are currently involved in membership negotiations, and it took China more than 15 years of negotiations before it became a member in 2001. Ultimately, two-thirds of the WTO's member nations must vote to approve a bid to join.

But Thursday's decision is a concrete display of good will as a result of Iran's concession on its nuclear program, and will make it easier for Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, to persuade Iran's leaders to wait for the Europeans' proposals before deciding whether to restart its nuclear activities.

With the decision, Iran now has observer status and can sit in on all meetings of the WTO. Iran has been eager to gain access to advanced Western technology, including nuclear reactors, promote international trade and investment, and overcome its reputation as an unreliable partner that, according to the United States, is the world's foremost supporter of terrorism. The Bush administration has made clear that it has no intention of offering Iran any more incentives at the present time. Nicholas Burns, the new under secretary of state for political affairs, told Congress last week, "There is no reason to believe that extra incentives offered by the United States at this point would make a difference." He added, "We don't have any reason to think that if the U.S. were at the table, the Iranians would be any more open."

The Iranian side sees it very differently. One of the items highest on their shopping list with the Europeans is access to advanced nuclear reactors. But Europe cannot sell Iran nuclear reactors without American approval, because they contain American technology that is banned under American sanctions against Iran.

At one point at a working-level meeting in Brussels on Tuesday between Iranian and European negotiators, Hosseim Mousavian, one of the Iranian negotiators, asked the Europeans why they did not just ask "their big boss," the United States, to directly supply Iran with 10 nuclear reactors, two participants in the meeting said. "The United States," said one European participant at the talks, "has always been the ghost at the table."

Tom Wright of The International Herald Tribune contributed reporting to this article

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