Iran pledged Tuesday to suspend uranium enrichment and allow tough international checks of its nuclear program, defusing a looming crisis and crowning European diplomatic efforts to avert a conflict between Washington and Tehran.
Iran's moves to assuage Western fears that it is building a nuclear bomb came after senior officials met with three European foreign ministers who pressed the authorities to comply with demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, the ministers promised technical help with Iran's civilian nuclear power project.
The agreement signaled a striking success for the European Union's persistent efforts in recent months to engage Iran in talks over its nuclear ambitions. That policy contrasted with Washington's more threatening approach.
"The deal shows that it is good to combine carrots and sticks," says François Heisbourg, head of the Strategic Research Foundation in Paris. "The US was talking all sticks, without using them, while the Europeans put the sticks in the balance but made clear there would be carrots," such as trade deals and technical assistance.
The IAEA had set an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to prove it does not have a nuclear weapons program, as Washington alleges.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi promised, "We are ready for total transparency because we are not pursuing an illegal program." The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council left a meeting with the European ministers saying Iran would sign a protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, allowing spot checks anywhere by IAEA inspectors, and would also suspend uranium enrichment for as long as it saw fit.
"Once international concerns ... are fully resolved, Iran could expect easier access to modern technology and supplies in a range of areas," the three foreign ministers - Jack Straw of Britain, Joschka Fischer of Germany, and Dominique de Villepin of France - said in a joint statement.
It was unclear at press time how the United States, which has cold-shouldered Iran as a member of President Bush's "axis of evil," would react to this proposal. Asked whether the EU was defying Washington, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told France Inter radio Tuesday, "We simply want to solve a very difficult issue for the region via dialogue and political means."
The agreement does not entirely resolve the crisis between Iran and the international community over its nuclear policy, but is "a promising start in which everyone has to play their part," Mr. de Villepin said.
Tehran's case may still go to the UN Security Council - which could impose sanctions - if IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei cannot verify in a Nov. 20 report that Iran has no intentions of building nuclear weapons. Mr. ElBaradei said that he hopes and expects that "in the next few days Iran will deliver to the IAEA a complete declaration of all its past nuclear activities." He called Tuesday's deal "an encouraging sign toward clarifying all aspects of Iran's past nuclear program and regulating its future activities through verification."
IAEA inspectors have found traces of enriched uranium at Iranian nuclear sites that have not been explained. Enriched uranium is used to fuel reactors, but if enriched further can be used in warheads.
This new agreement, however, suggests that Tehran is not interested in dragging out the crisis, analysts say. All its major trading partners - the EU, Japan, Canada, and Australia - have demanded that it meet the IAEA demands. "Iran especially cannot afford to alienate Europe after spending so long building ties that would take another 10 years to rebuild," says Hossein Alikhani, director of the Center for World Dialogue, a think tank in Cyprus.
The visit of three European ministers offered a face saving way out for Tehran, adds Mr. Heisbourg. "It is one thing to conclude an agreement with three Europeans, and another to be seen caving in to the Americans," he points out.
At the same time, suggests Ali Ansari, an expert on Iran at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, "the Europeans are acutely aware that at a time when [operations in] Afghanistan and Iraq have not been completed, this is not the time for a conflict with Iran.
"They were anxious to keep Iran onside, to bring it into the fold, because they know that confrontation will not bring results," and might even spur Tehran to renounce the nonproliferation treaty altogether, he adds.
ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, meanwhile, is reluctant to declare Iran noncompliant with his agency's requirements unless such a finding has consequences, according to sources familiar with his thinking. UN sanctions could be one such consequence, but Iran is well practiced in smuggling nuclear parts, experts say, while a bombing raid on its nuclear facilities would set back its program, but then drive it further underground.
Much will now depend on what Iran actually does in the coming weeks - how fully it answers the IAEA's questions about the past, how quickly it signs the additional protocol, and how long it suspends uranium enrichment.
"The key test comes now," says Dr. Ansari. "The Iranians have shown willing, but saying it is one thing, and doing it is another. In the coming weeks, they have to show that they are not pussyfooting around."
• Michael Theodoulou in Cyprus and Faye Bowers in Washington contributed to this report.