Iran’s accession request brought on the Council agenda

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 9 May 2001 - Iran crossed one small, initial hurdle for negotiating its entry into the World Trade Organization Tuesday when its nearly six-year old application for accession was formally brought on the agenda of the WTO General Council, and it was agreed to keep it on the agenda of the Council’s next meeting.

Iran had put in an application in September 1996, and renewed this in 1998, the application was never formally placed before the membership, and brought on the agenda of the General Council, an essential first step for the establishment of a working party on the accession request, and set the terms and conditions for such accession.

Under the rules and procedures and practices of the WTO, the Director-General ought to have to notified the membership and put it on the draft agenda of the General Council, where member or members could have objected to the draft agenda itself or withheld consensus on any further actions, including the normal one of establishing a working party to look into the application.

But the Director-General did not put it before the General Council.

In 1996, the United States did not want the application to be brought up, and got the support of the EU, and in informal consultations involving the two, Director-General Renato Ruggiero and the then Chair of the General Council, Switzerland, the Iranian request was not brought before the Council meetings before the Singapore Ministerial Conference or the Conference itself.

And while Iran as a non-member could not get its application before the GC, no member of the WTO (which could have formally asked the Director-General to put the item on the agenda) appears to have done so either.

Perhaps there was some tacit acquiescence of key developing countries not to raise this controversy in the preparatory process, with many developing countries not wanting to be side-tracked from the many problems and difficulties facing them, and already before the WTO preparations for the first ministerial conference..

At that time in 1996, both the US and the EU members held Iran to be behind the terrorist attacks, and coordinated economic and political sanctions against Iran.

Subsequently, in 1998, Iran renewed its request for accession, but it was again not brought before the General Council, though by then opinion began to change in EU..

But even when Iran renewed its request in 1998, no action appears to have been taken, though the Director- General (and the GC chairs) are known to have consulted some of the major players.

The Iran accession application, and the failure to act was raised at Bangkok in February 2000, during UNCTAD- X, when Iran raised the issue at an interactive session where the WTO Director-General Mike Moore spoke. At that time, Mr. Moore said that since taking over as D.G. he had met the Iranian representatives, and had held consultations but still found no consensus to bring the issue before the WTO.

In December 2000, the informal group of developing countries (IGDC) at the WTO considered the issue of Iran’s accession request, as also the difficulties faced by other developing countries seeking accession, because of their being asked to take on more obligations than the WTO developing country members, and in some areas more than the developed country members too.

At the December 2000 meeting of the General Council, the then chair of the IGDC, Amb. Fayza Aboulnaga of Egypt, raised the issue and made a statement under any other business, and formally asked for the Iranian application to be brought on the agenda, and also for the Council to lay down “clear and objective rules and disciplines for accession negotiations.”

[At a recent experts consultation on the accession issue, held by UNCTAD Secretary-General, one of the countries that had succeeded in acceding to the WTO, in describing its own experience, is reported to have said that its own experience suggested that the acronym WTO stood for the World Torture Organization.]

At the US request, the developing countries agreed to the issue not being brought up at the February General Council, (when a new administration would have just taken over in Washington and would have been unable to apply its mind), but put on the Council agenda in May.

Under an elaborate ‘compromise’ worked out in informal prior consultations, the agenda of the Council for Tuesday’s session, including the Iran item, was adopted without any objections. When the item itself was taken up, US ambassador Mrs Rita Hayes (a holdover of the Clinton Administration, holding the fort until a successor is appointed) made a brief statement that the US was reviewing its position on the Iranian application, but was not in a position at this time to support any action.

Malaysia’s, Amb. M. Supperamaniam (who now chairs the IGDC) thanked the US for its position and said the item should continue to be on the agenda and hoped that at the next meeting (in considering the request from Iran under the item) “established procedures will be followed.” - a reference to the normal practice of setting up a working party to process the request for accession.

The Chairman, Mr. Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong China took note of the statements and said the item will be on the agenda for the next meeting.

But after the discussion had been closed, the EC made a statement that the accession request should be considered on its merits, that the EC had been ready to consider a request for a working party at this meeting, but recognized the need for consensus and was agreeable to the item being brought up at the next meeting.

Trade diplomats later noted that the US was doing its own internal reviews and this necessarily involved several of the departments in the US. On the one hand, President Bush, in his most recent speech about his proposed nuclear missile defence shield had named Iran as one of the ‘rogue states’ from which the US wanted to shield itself. On the other side, there were serious discussions (and pressures from the US business community and their Congressional supporters) about easing, if not lifting, the economic sanctions against Iran and Libya.

In the EU several member states are now actively pursuing trade and economic relationships with Iran.

Bringing the Iranian accession request on the agenda this time, and a decision to bring it up again at the next meeting, these diplomat said, was just the first initial hurdle in the way of Iran joining the WTO, and much ‘tortuous’ negotiations lie ahead, even if the US does not block reference to a working party. – SUNS4892

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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