There has always been something suspect about European mediation over Iran's nuclear programme. This is not to deny that the EU trio (Britain, France and Germany) is sincere in wishing to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear arms. It lies, rather, in its ineffectiveness.
On the one hand, the three foreign ministers are confronted with a long-held Iranian determination to become a nuclear-weapons power and thereby to dominate the Gulf. On the other, they are out of step with the Bush Administration, which, rather than negotiating with Iran, believes it should be taken to the UN Security Council and subjected to sanctions. Without a unified approach, the West has little hope of persuading the Islamic republic permanently to renounce its nuclear ambitions.
That weakness was demonstrated in the unravelling of an EU-Iranian deal struck in October 2003. Prospects for the latest agreement, concluded on Sunday, are not much better. Teheran has accepted a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment in return for a series of economic incentives, but, as last time, the deal could well come unstuck over differing interpretations of what it entails.
Yesterday, Teheran's reliability was called in question by claims from the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that uranium is being enriched at a site in the capital, concealed from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors; and that Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb, gave Iran a small amount of weapons-grade uranium and the design of a warhead developed by the Chinese. In 2002, the NCRI revealed the existence of a uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy-water facility at Arak; having been thus caught reneging on its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Teheran declared both sites to the IAEA.
The EU trio will claim progress in having persuaded the Iranians fully to suspend uranium conversion, if only for a while. However, given its previous duplicity, the deal is more likely to have afforded Teheran breathing-space to pursue its long-term goal. It was reached only 11 days before an IAEA board meeting in Vienna at which, in the absence of concessions, the case was likely to have been referred to the Security Council. The threat of an Iranian bomb is already high on George W Bush's agenda. As he approaches his second term, the ineffectiveness of EU mediation puts it even higher.