Nuclear progress won't end tensions for Iran, West

By Adam Schreck

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2010 file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr. Iran and six world powers have agreed on how to implement a nuclear deal struck in November, with its terms starting from Jan. 20, officials announced Sunday.

Mehr News Agency, Majid Asgaripour, File, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The U.N. decision to revoke Iran's invitation to this week's Syrian peace talks almost as quickly as it came was a reminder that the path to reconciliation between Tehran and the West is hardly a smooth one. Progress on the issue of Iran's nuclear program is no guarantee of an easing of tensions in the multiple disputes between the two sides.

Iran took a major step in defrosting relations with the West over its nuclear program by halting high-level uranium enrichment Monday as part of a landmark interim deal that wins it an easing of some economic sanctions.

But the very same day on the Syria front, Tehran showed it was sticking by its key ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, by refusing to endorse the premise of the peace talks — a call for the creation of a transitional Syrian government.

The flap over the invitation to the talks, which begin Wednesday in the Swiss resort town of Montreux, left both sides clearly stung.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the revoking of the invitation by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, only a day after he issued it, was "behavior below his dignity," accusing him of bending to pressure from the "the U.S. and some groups whose hands were smeared with the blood of the Syrian people."

Ban's office, in turn, suggested the U.N. chief had been misled by Tehran.

Ban's spokesman, Farhan Haq, said Tuesday that he had understood from conversations with Zarif that they had reached an "oral understanding" that would be followed by a written understanding, accepting the premise of the negotiations. "That didn't happen. He was disappointed with what the follow-up was," Haq said, referring to Iran's insistence Monday that it would participate in the negotiations "without preconditions."

The events Monday highlighted the multiple facets of the disputes between Iran and the West — and how a step forward in one doesn't rule a step back in another.

The nuclear program is one major dispute, with the U.S. and its allies fearing that Tehran aims to build nuclear weapons, while Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes. But it's not the only one. The United States see Iran as a sponsor of terrorism for its backing of militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah, and it and its Arab allies have been pushing back against Tehran's moves to spread its influence in the Middle East — particularly through its alliance with Assad.

Still, so far all sides appear intent on keeping the disputes compartmentalized.

"Iran will feel snubbed" over the invitation but not enough to imperil its chances at securing a lasting nuclear deal in exchange for broader sanctions relief, said Cliff Kupchan, director for Middle East at U.S.-based consulting firm Eurasia Group.

"It's a glitch but not a game-changer," he said. "Both sides have bent over backwards to avoid linkage between the nuclear issue and regional issues."

Moderate President Hasan Rouhani has said resolving the nuclear dispute is key to ending the painful economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europeans, and his administration has shown it wants to defrost relations with the West. The interim nuclear deal that went into effect Monday starts a six-month clock for further negotiations on a final agreement.

Even as the U.S. and European allies ease some sanctions, they are determined to keep many others in place to ensure a further rollback of the program and prevent Tehran from building an atomic bomb.

"Iran still faces several hurdles before normalizing relations with the international community," the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor noted in a report Tuesday. "If Tehran finds itself completely financially and politically secure, it will have much less incentive to reach a diplomatic settlement" on the nuclear issue, it added.

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