Beneath the dispute between Iran and the European Union Troika (EU-3) on uranium enrichment rests a far more fundamental issue: Do Third World countries have the right to develop and use all nuclear technology, including enrichment, as authorized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), or not?

Iran says, categorically, “Yes,” and the 116-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) agrees. The EU-3–consisting of Britain, France and Germany–does not deny the right. But it wants Tehran to give up its prerogative forever in return for the Europeans’ commitment to build nuclear power plants in Iran and upgrade trade ties with the Islamic Republic. As a result, when the last round of the Iran/EU-3 negotiations started last November, the two sides ended up at a stalemate.

To make sure the United States did not sabotage their diplomatic effort, the Europeans kept Washington abreast of their plans. By contrast, they paid little heed to the Iranians’ repeated statements that they would not countenance the prospect of permanently abdicating their right to complete the whole nuclear cycle–enriching uranium, which is abundant in Iran, using it as fuel for power plants and reprocessing the spent fuel–as allowed in Article IV of the NPT.

The Iranians were focused on providing the EU-3 with “the objective guarantees” of the peaceful nature of their nuclear program. In March they submitted detailed proposals for strict monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Iran’s nuclear program. The regime they proposed went further than the provisions of the Additional Protocol on the NPT that they had signed in December 2003. EU negotiators received the Iranian document without officially accepting it.

“The Framework for a Long-Term Agreement,” which the Europeans proposed to Iran in early August, made its offer of commercial incentives and building of nuclear electric generating plants conditional on Tehran’s permanent renunciation of its rights under the NPT. At the same time, they demanded that Tehran promise not to leave the NPT under any circumstances–which North Korea had done.

Iran rejected the European package. It resumed its work at the plant near Isfahan, where uranium oxide (called yellowcake) is converted to uranium hexafluoride gas–but only under the watchful eyes of the IAEA inspectors. This gas is the feedstock for centrifuges that enrich uranium to varying degrees: 4 percent for power plants, 20 percent for research reactors and 90 percent or higher for weapons.

This was a clear breach of Iran’s agreement to suspend “all uranium enrichment related activities” while talks with the EU-3 continued, cried the Europeans.

They threatened to take Iran to the United Nations Security Council. It was an empty threat. Only the IAEA governors can do so.

At the emergency meeting of the IAEA governors in Vienna in August, the Europeans discovered they did not have the wide majority they had hoped for among the thirty-five governors. So they settled for a call to Tehran to revert to suspending its activities related to uranium enrichment, and for the IAEA secretary-general to report on the issue by September 3.

In their agitated state of mind, the EU-3 negotiators failed to realize that the only valid basis for hauling Iran before the United Nations Security Council was its breach of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime as enshrined in the NPT. In its latest statement on the subject, the IAEA said that it had not found any evidence that Iran was engaged in a nuclear weapons program, which is banned under the NPT. (Later, the IAEA announced that its tests vindicated Iran’s claims that traces of enriched uranium found two years earlier by its inspectors at the Iranian nuclear facilities were from the imported equipment, believed to be of Pakistani origin.)

Not surprisingly, Washington dismissed the IAEA findings as meaningless.

Among those who remained coolly cognizant of the facts on the ground were fifteen IAEA governors belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement. The NAM includes such heavyweights as Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa.

At the IAEA’s emergency session, Rajmah Hussein of Malaysia, the current NAM chairman, reiterated NAM’s position that all countries have a basic and inalienable right to develop atomic energy for peaceful purposes–the prime objective for which the IAEA was established in 1953 at the initiative of US President Dwight Eisenhower.

By design or happenstance, Iran has emerged as a champion of the developing world with the courage and conviction to stand up to the Western world. This has won it quiet admiration by NAM governors, who fear that the limitations imposed on Iran could be extended to them eventually.

Little wonder that Ali Larijani, the newly appointed secretary-general of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that he welcomed talks with all IAEA governors and NAM members.

This went down badly with both the EU-3 and the United States. It is clear by now that further pressure on Tehran to abdicate its right would cause a major fissure between the West and the developing world.