Negotiations for mutual benefit − but without glossing over differences − have been attempted before, but not with such a strong basis for progress.
The agreement reached on 24 November laid down a joint plan of action for a comprehensive solution to ensure Iran’s controversial nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.
These are dry words about a breakthrough with potential for finally settling an issue that might have brought on a new war in the Middle East and that threatened to unravel the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is one of the pillars of international security. US President Barack Obama and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei committed their negotiators to achieving an agreement, despite the risks arising from bitter internal opposition to compromising with the other in both Washington and Tehran.
There are positive implications too, both for the future of Iran and its people −ill-served as they have been by much that their past governments have done − and for improved Iranian behaviour in the Middle East’s many crises.
But haven’t we heard some of this optimism before? Yes and No.
No, because until 2013 the US and its partners in the negotiations with Iran (Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia) were unable to agree the subsequent basis for progress: that, provided it abided fully by the provisions of the NPT, Iran could have a programme to enrich uranium as a fuel for power stations.
Yes, because casting our minds back a decade or so, Europe had a full diplomatic relationship with Iran’s then-reformist government. It sought through dialogue to improve trade and to promote cooperation on eliminating weapons of mass destruction, the Middle East peace process, human rights and fighting terrorism. By building normal links at all levels the West wanted to advance its interests in ensuring Iran had no nuclear weapons and moved away from extremism at home and abroad, with considerable implications for regional peace.
The West failed for two reasons. First, the US stayed aloof. When, as Ambassador to Iran, I met Vice President Dick Cheney at a reception in 2005 in Washington he used the prevailing formula that assumed America possessed more power than it actually had to change things for the better: ‘The Iranians know what they have to do.’ Negotiation was not for them: it was submission or nothing. What folly.
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said at the time that the Iranians regarded the Europeans as the sprat to catch the US mackerel. Their government, under President Mohammad Khatami and the head of their National Security Council Hassan Rouhani − now president − knew that it had little chance of prospering if it could not reach an accommodation with the US. But the US mackerel remained determined not to be caught.
The second reason for failure was that the Ayatollahs were not willing to work with the West. By 2005 it was clear that there could not be progress in the dialogue and it fizzled out. Iran went on demonizing Israel. ‘England’ remained to many of the leadership the historic source of conspiracies against them. Iran set itself against the US everywhere. What folly.
The strategic picture could turn out to be different this time, but this will be slow in coming. There are big risks from events and from the need in Tehran and Washington to be seen to be driving the hardest bargain.
Hassan Rouhani has great strengths, including his connections across the fractious world of Iranian politics, that have enabled him to create a coalition government. Utterly loyal to the Islamic Republic, he looks facts in the face and is interested in what works, not in slogans. The Supreme Leader trusts him. Rouhani said at the UN General Assembly in New York in September that the nuclear question should be settled. Then the US and Iran should work on a framework to manage their differences. He can do it. Iran will be ready to help at the Geneva Conference on Syria next year, if invited.
It is what Iranians want. Back in 2007, the then nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told foreign ambassadors that Iran had three options: defiance, surrender and manoeuvring to maximize advantage. Iranians are sick of the deprivation and humiliation that defiance has brought, but they will not surrender. Through deftly adding, albeit much too late in the day, diplomatic dedication to its armoury of sanctions, the US has got the Iranian government’s attention. The leaders in Tehran realize that the last years have been a disaster. Their survival instincts are engaged.
The wall of distrust is starting to break down. The logic that created openings for Europe 10 or 15 years ago is alive. Iran’s leaders are once more allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency and world powers the information they need to assess whether they are telling the truth about the solely peaceful intent of their nuclear activities.
This makes sense: why should they go on taking the heat as though they had decided to build nuclear weapons, something Western intelligence authorities admit they have not done?
Iran will now negotiate in good faith for a settlement that is fundamentally in its interest. Under it there would be two big gains for the Middle East and for the rest of the world. First, it will be verified that Iran is in full compliance with its international obligations under the NPT. Second, as a fail-safe, the restrictions on Iran’s activities will be such that, should it decide against the odds to breakout and make a dash for a bomb, there would be scope and sufficient time to prevent it.
A comprehensive deal can be reached. There are solutions available and negotiable in return for the phased removal of nuclear-related sanctions as prescribed in the 24 November agreement. A lengthy transition period could be agreed, during which Iran would not hold stocks of enriched uranium until there is a need for it in new power reactors. The controversial Arak power reactor could be transformed into a light water reactor that uses low enriched uranium produced in Iran under strict controls. In the context of a comprehensive agreement Iran could come clean on the nuclear weapons-related research it has undertaken.
Diplomatic engagement with Iran will be complex and there will be setbacks but it should not be as grindingly unproductive in 2014 as it was a decade ago.
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