As a consequence of the US-Russian agreement of 14 September 2013 on Syria’s chemical arsenal and, especially, of the openness demonstrated by the Obama administration towards Tehran – the famous phone call of the Iranian president by his American counterpart at the end of this year’s edition of the UN General Assembly held last September – the negotiations between the big powers and Iran over the nuclear dossier started in Geneva. The international context of these talks essentially reflects the complexity of this dossier, hence Tehran’s aspiration to possess uranium enrichment facilities in conditions of international legality – as it claims – and the high volatility of the Mideast situation. On one hand, Iran is suspected of not wishing to avail of the respective facilities only for peaceful use, and that it plans to build the nuclear bomb, which would significantly impact the regional balance of power and, equally, would start an atomic arming race throughout the region, with destabilising potential beyond its perimeter.
On the other hand, Israel, along with other forces that compete in the international arena – the neo-Conservative current in the USA, practically one of the forces of the Republican Party to be reckoned with, as well as different tendencies in western countries and beyond – consider the ongoing negotiations as a waste of time, because Tehran is decided to build the A-bomb so that it can shield itself against a possible attempt to change the ruling political regime. In this context, the forces that support and oppose the negotiations with Tehran overtly confront each other in the international media and – one might suspect – beyond, in the involved chancelleries, also in a different, less visible field. Namely that which encompasses the more or less transparent efforts made by each of the two camps to gain new adherents for its platform.
Against this complicate background, last week, in Geneva, the negotiations between Tehran and the ‘5 plus 1’ group, namely the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany, chaired by Catherine Ashton, the head of the EU diplomacy – produced a first noteworthy result. It is not a breakthrough that would already herald a rejoicing conclusion, but rather a defining of position in the complexity of talks, which can make them, this time, efficient and prone to yielding final effects. Unlike the four rounds of negotiations held until now in the same ‘6 plus Tehran’ format, the current round aimed to establish its purpose outright. During the last four years, such talks were held in Istanbul, Bagdad and Almaty, but each time they failed to produce a result, because they did not have a well-defined purpose of the end-result. On one hand, Tehran tried to convince its interlocutors into giving up their exigencies regarding the Iranian nuclear programme, also the sanctions instated against Iran, while on the other the West demanded rapid steps proving that the uranium enrichment programme of this country is not meant to have a military purpose.
This time, however, at Geneva, the Iranian negotiator proposed in the first place to define the ‘end state’ of his country’s nuclear programme. In translation, this means that Iran wants to be recognised the right to enrich uranium, with the only problem being that the allowed stage of this process must be negotiated. Is this an attempt by Tehran to ‘torpedo’ the negotiations from the very beginning, or just a tactic for delaying them?
The arguments of the Iranian side can be suspected. Under the international legislation, any state may use nuclear energy to peaceful purposes, so its legal basis is strong. But Tehran knows very well that it is precisely this step that has not been made, so far, by its interlocutors – between their proposals was that Iran accepts enriched uranium from other producers (Russia, for instance, offered to do it) and use it either in nuclear power plants, or in medical reactors. On the other hand, the acceptance of Iran’s demand by ‘the 6’ would strengthen the positions of western conservatives, especially in the USA, and would sharpen the opposition of Israel to this round in Geneva. In a column published last week, John Bolton a leader of the US neo-Conservative camp underscored: “Tuesday’s opening of yet another round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program creates enormous risks for America’s anti-proliferation efforts. Tehran’s extensive propaganda campaign, stressing the ‘moderation’ of its new president, Hassan Rouhani, seems to be working, softening up the gullible in the United States and Europe.”
What is to be done? Giving up to Iran is systemically dangerous. Equally, if not more dangerous would be to freeze the negotiations on this topic and return to the old positions of negotiation, which proved to be a failure. According to comments by international media, Iran has open road to purchase the nuclear weapon, given the declining influence in Washington of Saudi Arabia and Israel, the states most fearful of such a weapon controlled by Tehran. Obama’s relations with Israeli PM Netanyahu are very cold. A well-informed reader of FT wrote: “Iran will have nukes if they want them badly enough, nobody can stop them.” The same reader added that Tehran only negotiated in order to gain time and it is unlikely that now, faced with the prospect of acquiring the nuclear weapon in the near future, with the obvious strategic advantage deriving from this move, it will give up its nuclear programme. On the other hand – wrote the reader – Tehran’s claim that it needs the nuclear programme to cover its energy needs is unjustified, given the huge hydrocarbon deposits it avails of, plus the country is very earthquake-sensitive for nuclear power plants and solar, geothermal or hydro would be much easier to generate.
Anyway, it is evident that a real media offensive is possible, staged by the conservative forces that warn ‘the 6’ against trusting the promises of Iran, claiming that Iran’s actions with this regard cannot be verified and the needs of the ‘moderates’ in Tehran are only a smokescreen. Another comment posted to the same article recently published by ‘The Guardian’ under the signature of John Bolton mentions that Iran is led by clerics “who believe in the required ‘coming’ of the 12th Imam under conditions of a catastrophic world event. A nuclear holocaust would probably fit that bill.” There are also readers who favour negotiations, as demonstrated by a post to the same article that analyses the West-Iran relations: “There is a window of opportunity for the U.S. to engage with Iran, and not to take advantage of that would be foolish. You can’t negotiate anything when there is mutual hostility. Israel could do well to show some goodwill towards Iran. It has nothing to lose./…/.The Iranian President looks very promising and has a nice smile, but he does need to understand that much of the world still believes that Iran is maneuvering to a position where a nuclear bomb is just a short step away. It doesn’t need it, and this will create an arms race amongst rival nations like Saudi Arabia, etc. It is time for Iran to move on from the post-revolution siege mentality and time to start engaging more positively with the world, long term. “
This is indeed a window of opportunity which must be used with good faith by both sides, in order to extinguish a very likely hotbed of war.