The deal struck between Iran and Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (EU-3) on November 15 is a welcome pause in an ominous build-up over Iran's efforts to develop the capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran's freeze on suspect nuclear activities is still tentative and the EU-3's incentives remain uncertain -- evidence that the parties are wary of one another and that further probing and brinksmanship are likely. The challenge now is to build a constructive relationship based on distrust. That goal cannot be accomplished, however, without first understanding the sources of the distrust and getting the United States involved, too.

The Europeans do not trust Iran's claims that it does not seek nuclear weapons and has stopped trying to get the capability to build them. Nor do they trust a U.S. administration guided by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of State John Bolton not to try to sabotage a negotiated settlement with the "evil" Iranian government. European leaders bristle at Washington's refusal to deal with the Iranians even though it has no realistic military plan to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure or change the government in Tehran. At the same time, the EU-3 realize that Tehran will not relinquish developing its nuclear capability if Washington does not assure it that forcible regime change is off the agenda.

Iran's leaders, for their part, do not trust one another any more than they do the Europeans or the Americans. Individuals and factions are jockeying for positions in the run-up to next year's presidential elections. Some favor Iran's integration into the mainstream global political economy; others, including the conservative trading groups linked to foundations run by religious leaders, fear economic openness and competition. Against this background, the nuclear issue has become the political soccer ball of Iranian politics. Moreover, worrying that the Europeans may not be able to deliver on their promises alone, Tehran will wait for Washington's explicit endorsement before implementing any agreement.

The Bush administration, finally, does not trust Iranian leaders to abandon their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and believes that Tehran will continue to seek the bomb either by gaming the nonproliferation rules or by making one under the table. It also has little confidence in the resolve or capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to police Iranian nuclear activities vigorously. Nor does it have confidence in the Europeans' determination to prevent Iran from producing highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. Cheney, Bolton, and other powerful U.S. players still believe in the revolutionary approach to nuclear counterproliferation they applied in Iraq. As I wrote in the March/April 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs, "these officials seek not to create an equitable global regime that actively devalues nuclear weapons and creates conditions for their eventual elimination, but rather to eradicate the bad guys or their weapons while leaving the 'good guys' free of nuclear constraints." This selective, moralistic, and militant posture exacerbates Iranian nationalism, insecurity, and defiance. It also undermines the cooperation that the United States needs to garner not only from the EU-3 but also the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council in order to isolate and pressure Iran.

The deal worked out between Iran and the EU-3 provides a framework for all actors to test each other and to structure arrangements that rely on actions rather than words. Negotiations over the details will take time, perhaps even years, and each player will be tempted to stall. Iran could threaten to end the voluntary suspension of its nuclear activities in order to test European resolve and U.S. commitment to the process. The Europeans, meanwhile, will worry that Tehran might try to pocket benefits today and then renege on its obligations tomorrow. Sequencing and timing the discussions properly will therefore be essential. Ironically, although the United States is not a party to the negotiations, it can determine their pace. If Washington explicitly backed the terms of the November 15 agreement and conveyed its willingness to deal with whoever leads the Iranian government, the whole process could be accelerated. Washington can do so, it is worth noting, even as it continues to express support for Iran's democratic reformers and participates in a broader regional dialogue on the future of Persian Gulf security.

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  • George Perkovich is Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of India's Nuclear Bomb.
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