Thursday, May 26, 2005

WTO agrees entry talks with Iran, U.S. drops veto - May. 26, 2005

WTO agrees entry talks with Iran, U.S. drops veto - May. 26, 2005: "WTO discusses entry with Iran

Talks come after U.S. drops veto as possible reward for Iran's suspension of nuclear activity.
May 26, 2005: 3:53 PM EDT

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GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Trade Organization agreed Thursday to start membership negotiations with Iran after the United States dropped a long-standing veto.

The U.S. decision appeared to be the first tangible reward for Iran after it agreed Wednesday to maintain its suspension of all nuclear activities in a deal with the European Union.

Mohammad Reza Alborzi, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, welcomed the breakthrough at WTO's General Council, whose 148 member states make decisions by consensus.

"I take note that a decision that has long been overdue has been now established," Alborzi said in remarks to the closed-door meeting.

Iran applied to join the WTO in September 1996, and its candidacy was first considered in May 2001. But Washington had blocked agreement ever since at 22 General Council meetings.

"Today this house, with this decision, has done service to itself by correcting a wrong," Alborzi said in a statement given to journalists.

But the green light to talks from the WTO, which sets the rules for world trade, does not mean that Iran, the world's fourth largest oil exporter, will be joining soon.

Accession talks can take years, with Russia still negotiating its entry after a decade of discussions.

Iran's Commerce Minister, Mohammad Shariatmadari, told state radio, "Naturally, we are at the beginning of a long road."

Carlo Trojan, the EU's trade ambassador, welcomed the decision as "positive news." Joseph Akerman, a trade envoy from member Israel, said if Iran fulfills the basic principles of the WTO, "then they are welcome like any other country."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States remained hopeful enough about EU-Iran talks to keep a commitment it made in March not to again block Tehran's application to join the WTO.

But Boucher said, "I point out that process is usually a lengthy one. It can often last several years and require very complex negotiations. And it would, again, require consensus before Iran could actually join the World Trade Organization as a member."

Policy shift
The United States accuses Tehran of wanting to build nuclear weapons and of supporting terrorism. Iran denies the charges.

But in a policy shift in March designed to bolster EU-Tehran negotiations, the United States offered Iran economic incentives to abandon its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, including letting WTO accession talks start.

But that U.S. commitment was put at risk when Iran recently declared its intent to resume sensitive nuclear activities. An imminent crisis was averted Wednesday when the so-called EU3 -- Britain, France and Germany -- agreed with Iran on a two-month breathing space for a deal.

"The discussions this week ... we think demonstrate that efforts to achieve a peaceful, diplomatic solution on the Iran nuclear issue do continue," Boucher said.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, told Iranian state television that the EU deal could still unravel if the Tehran government objected to the terms.

Iran has repeatedly said there are no incentives the West can offer that would persuade it to give up a nuclear program it insists will only produce electricity, and not weapons.

Amina Mohamed, Kenya's ambassador who chairs the General Council, told a news conference, "Universal membership is our goal and this brings us one step closer to it."

In all, 30 countries including Iran and Sao Tome and Principe, whose request was also approved Thursday, are now in or about to start negotiations on terms of WTO accession. These include Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer.

Syria, which applied in 2001, has yet to have its request taken up formally by the global trade watchdog amid continuing U.S. opposition, trade sources said."