Quiet diplomacy and a sudden absence of irresponsible rhetoric have enhanced prospects for an acceptable agreement to allow Iran to develop nuclear energy but give up its presumed nuclear weapons programs.
A continuing stand-off at the second round of talks in Baghdad this week is hardly surprising after five weeks of optimism and diplomatic fencing. It is still an early stage in what promises to be a protracted series of discussions.
Despite an apparent impasse in Baghdad between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran, there are positive developments. A remarkable degree of restraint has been exercised as leaders of the P5+1 grapple with the opaque and complex agenda of Iran’s clerical regime. Tuesday’s agreement to allow full inspections of suspect Iranian sites — still to be confirmed by Iran’s rulers — is another encouraging step.
As expected, the issue for the P5+1 boils down to sharply limiting or eliminating Iran’s enrichment of uranium — and allowing full inspections under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. For Iran, its leaders demand sufficient enrichment to pursue nuclear energy and medical research, as allowed under the NPT, and immediate relief from economic sanctions.
A number of quick fixes on uranium enrichment have been suggested. Most call for removal from Iran of uranium enriched to date. Some would allow a small percentage of enrichment for energy and medical purposes — probably under a multinational fuel exchange. Iran’s hopes for a lifting of sanctions will not be considered until it has taken concrete steps to prove it does not seek nuclear weapons. Iranian officials complain of a lack of balance, but, after all, it is Iran that is not in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, not the P5+1 countries.
All of these ideas have their drawbacks. Given deep animosities and conditions in the region, it would still be an unstable situation where threats or fear of breakout from any deal could develop.
What is needed is a longer-term comprehensive strategy that makes nuclear weapons in the Middle East less important than solutions to energy, water and health problems — and above all begins to restore trust and confidence among major actors in the region.
Even if headway is made in Baghdad and future talks, a broader regional dialogue will be necessary to build confidence through a step-by-step process of security cooperation while applying the brakes to on-going nuclear weapons programs.
Many such ideas are available. Two practical initiatives that proved effective in the past are the Open Skies concept first propounded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Geneva Conference in 1955 and the U.S.-engineered implementation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in the Sinai after the October 1973 war.
The idea, generally, is to seek mutual transparency that will provide nervous leaders with direct and clear-cut procedures to justify and monitor reciprocal steps toward peace, while avoiding miscalculation. Whether using over-flights, observation posts, or on-the-ground inspections, such firsthand information addresses concerns and provides a double check for intelligence.
More ambitious moves could follow. A regional security pact similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, that helped to wind down the Cold War could be discussed. The last Review Conference of the Nonproliferation Treaty at UN headquarters called for a conference on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Polls in both Iran and Israel show large majorities for a nuclear-free Mideast.
It is encouraging that for the moment, loose talk of “preventive war” and “surgical strikes” has died down. Hardliners and “neo-cons” in the United States, Israel and Iran have calmed down, even if hoping these talks collapse. They could hardly sustain their arguments in the face of serious negotiations and a near-unanimous consensus among American military leaders and Israeli intelligence chiefs that such attacks not only would fail but also assure Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and an even more unstable Middle East for decades to come.
War is a highly uncertain affair. Publics everywhere have been reminded time and again, most recently in Iraq, that once unleashed, the direction war takes has its own unforgiving and terrible logic. Tough, patient diplomacy, based on forbearance and concrete steps toward cooperation, have proven to be better guides to policy in the nuclear age.
Fred Hill, of Arrowsic, was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun in Europe and Africa and later worked on national security issues for the Department of State.