The winter months saw the controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme become dangerously heated. Western media were encouraged to interpret recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) findings as proof that Iran is bent on making nuclear weapons, despite the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community remaining that a weapons decision has not been taken and is in no sense inevitable.
The U.S., UK, and European Union (EU) used the concern aroused by media reporting to justify a further sharpening of their attack on the Iranian economy, while Israel pressed for a different sort of attack, to wipe out Iranian nuclear facilities before the programme enters a so-called “zone of immunity.” Iran reminded its adversaries that it could retaliate by closing the Straits of Hormuz to oil and gas shipments.
As spring has come, passions have cooled. U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have felt able to tell Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu that a military attack is unnecessary at this juncture, even though the U.S. President is vulnerable to Israeli influence on U.S. public opinion in an electoral year. The five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, the EU and Germany have agreed to talk to Iran’s nuclear negotiator despite the latter’s failure to commit Iran to full implementation of the resolutions passed by the UN Security Council since 2006 (Notably these require Iran to suspend all production of the enriched uranium that can be converted into reactor fuel, but which Iran could divert to military use if it decided to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], or to ignore its NPT obligations).
There are signs that the U.S., UK and Germany, if not France under President Sarkozy, are moving towards the Russian and Chinese position of accepting Iranian enrichment as long as Iran offers the best possible guarantees that all its nuclear material will remain in non-military use. Public diplomacy has moderated rude aggression yielding to civility and reason.
The risk of disruption to oil and gas shipments has receded – for the time being at least – although recent U.S. and EU measures are causing problems for some of Iran’s traditional customers, and are hurting consumers everywhere through their effect on prices.
So it is not irrational to hope that when the eight parties – Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S., the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, the EU and Iran – meet on 14 April in Istanbul, they may find some way of launching a process that can, over time, lead to agreement. At long last, perhaps there can be concurrence on handling Iran’s nuclear ambitions in accordance with the treaty to which Iran is a founder-party, the NPT.
An NPT deal would recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium and would accept its taking advantage of that right, in return for Iran placing all nuclear material in its possession under IAEA safeguards and renewing its commitment to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons.
In one sense, the West approaches these talks from a position of weakness. The Iranians have shown no sign of buckling under the pressure of ever-tighter sanctions. They know that the West’s military option is deeply unattractive to any of sane mind.
In another sense, the West has many good cards in its hand. Sanctions are hurting Iran and it has an interest in having them lifted provided the price is not intolerable. Abandoning its enrichment plans would be intolerable; volunteering full access to IAEA inspectors, and other measures that can allay the concerns aroused by the clandestinity of some of its past nuclear activities, need not be.
To say that hope is permissible is not to say that the odds on yet another disappointment are long. In 2007 a promising opening vanished when Iran’s chief negotiator clashed with President Ahmedinejad. In 2009 it was President Ahmedinejad’s turn to be thwarted by domestic rivals; and President Obama, under pressure from hawks, withdrew his negotiators rather than wait for the Iranians to sort out their differences. In 2010, the timing of Iranian assent to a confidence-building proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil cast doubt in Western minds on Iran’s sincerity.
In other words, the scope for any process to founder on distrust, misunderstanding and political in-fighting in both Tehran and Washington remains formidable. Equally disturbing are the wider political realities.
Since 1992 both leading Israeli parties, Likud and Labour, have sought to convince Washington that Iran is a mortal threat to U.S. interests in South West Asia. This they have done in order to maintain Israel’s value to the U.S. as an ally in a post-Cold War Middle East and to avert a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations that they fear might entail a cooling in U.S.-Israeli relations. For these Israelis, Iran’s nuclear programme, and especially its undeclared activities prior to 2003, has been a gift from heaven.
Iran’s transgressions are a matter for persuading Americans that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, that these weapons will be used to destroy Israel, they say. Iran’s programme, if left unchecked, will precipitate nuclear proliferation in an unstable region, leading Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to acquire similar capabilities. U.S. conservatives, in thrall to dreams of re-shaping the Middle East and regime-change in Iran, have been eager echoers of these (highly questionable) arguments.
These constituencies, Israeli and American, have no interest in the normalisation of the Iranian nuclear case through an NPT deal. On the contrary, they have every interest in making it as politically difficult as possible for any U.S. administration to arrive at such a deal.
Saudi Arabia has been even less transparent than Israel. It is not obvious that the Saudis have been poisoning the wells of American opinion to thwart a deal with Iran. But Saudi-Iranian rivalry, multifaceted and acute since the advent of an Islamic Republic that challenges the legitimacy of Saudi occupation of the Holy Places, seized from the Hashemites in 1924, and which shows up the undemocratic nature of the Saudi monarchy, is well-documented. There have been veiled threats that Saudi Arabia will ignore its NPT obligations if Iran is left in peace to exploit nuclear technology that the Saudis themselves are decades away from mastering without outside help. Saudi Arabia too has an interest in thwarting any deal that leaves Iran in possession of enrichment plants.
There are additional factors. Ever since the NPT opened for signature in 1968, U.S. officials have found it hard to accept that the treaty allows non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) access to technologies that can serve both civil and military purposes. There’s been a 44-year itch to close what Americans see as a loop-hole, despite all the evidence that many NNWS are unready to concede a back-door renegotiation of a carefully-balanced instrument.
There is also in the U.S. a tendency to blind self-righteousness that can lead Americans to treat non-Americans as miscreants when the latter err. Iran’s failure to respect its NPT safeguards commitments prior to 2003, ill-disposes American officials to accord Iranian representatives the respect the latter crave. There’s a risk Iran’s negotiators will be made to feel like criminal suspects invited to engage in plea-bargaining.
For their part, the Iranians have a tendency to give way to the temptation to retaliate when instead keeping a stiff upper lip would be wiser. For instance, they retaliated for the 2006 reporting of their IAEA non-compliance to the Security Council by ceasing to allow the IAEA the access it needed to arrive at the conclusion that there are no undeclared nuclear activities or material in Iran. They retaliated for recent UK sanctions on financial dealings by trashing the British embassy in Tehran, an act of vandalism ill-calculated to make it easier for the British government to accept their enrichment ac
tivities. Will they be able to resist the urge to retaliate if some indignity is inflicted on them while negotiations are underway?
These wider factors suggest that India, Brazil and South Africa could play a part in resolving this controversy if they chose. They could act as auxiliaries of their BRICS partners, Russia and China, whose role in a negotiating process will be to help narrow differences. India could use its influence in Washington and European capitals to urge patience and the turning of deaf ears to special pleading from Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could draw attention to the way in which Western slowness to accept evidence that the Iranian nuclear threat had been exaggerated, has damaged Indian economic interests.
India could also stress the unacceptability of any attack on Iran that has not been authorised by the Security Council, both on legal grounds and on account of its probable consequences for Indian living standards. It could draw on 2,500 years of cultural affinity with Iran to offer advice on Iranian sensibilities: the dos and don’ts that matter in any negotiation.
The underlying need is for the BRICS to make their voice heard on this issue, to counter-point the tunes composed by the West’s Middle East allies. The BRICS are qualified to argue against seeing Iran’s nuclear programme in isolation. They can point out that the programme is a symbol of a geostrategic shift: Iran is slowly returning to the ranks of Asia’s greater powers.
This shift is unwelcome to some of Iran’s neighbours, it seems. They have sought to prevent it by distorting Western perceptions, by encouraging Western governments to assume the worst of a state whose intentions the West finds it hard to fathom, and by playing on the negative prejudices that are the legacy of past clashes with Iran.
But this kind of shift cannot be prevented without a conflict that would entail hardship or suffering for most of mankind. So the global family has an interest in Iran’s neighbours accommodating what can hardly be prevented, and according Iran a say in the affairs of South West Asia – what the Iranians see as their rightful place in the world.
*Ambassador Peter Jenkins is a former British diplomat who worked on the Iranian nuclear issue when ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna (2001-06).