Paul Ingram reports from Tehran

I’m in Tehran for BASIC in the middle of the second annual two day international conference on Disarmament and Non-proliferation laid on by IPIS, the Foreign Ministry’s think tank. I am here to present a paper today on why Iran should engage in the conference that is supposed to happen next year on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East. There is some question as to whether it will feel able to take part.  Iranians have expressed concern that the process will be dominated by the American and Israeli attempt to box Iran in on compliance issues, and then blame Iran for what they see as the inevitable failure of the process. There is also resentment here that the process depends so heavily upon powers outside the region. Iran claims it is interested in discussing nuclear disarmament, and indeed compliance with commitments made, as long as the frame of the discussion is focused on fairness and universal application. There is no interest here in accepting costly restrictions on the use of technology if this is to maintain power relations and protect an unequal regime, where one state – Israel – is able to threaten military attack on Iran on that basis of unproven suspicions that Iran is not abiding by its obligations to a treaty that it Israel is itself unwilling to sign.

There is no secret that Israel, too, has its significant discomfort about the proposal. Its position has long been that it is unwilling to negotiate on nuclear arms control until the peace process is successful, and does not have sufficient trust in the effectiveness of verification systems, however stringent.

Nevertheless the Israelis may yet attend to talk, if not negotiate. They will seek to ensure the agenda for 2012 is a broad one and will not include any explicit reference to their own nuclear arsenal nor to their joining the NPT. Nevertheless, they have every incentive in establishing dialogue in a region where they are losing allies (notably Turkey and Egypt), and where their nuclear monopoly hangs on a thread. The longer they stick rigidly to their position the more they risk losing precious support in Europe, and even (eventually) in Washington. They have a strong interest in seeing the NPT continue, and this depends in part upon them being seen to be involved in good faith in the process. The stakes are high. Without a conference the next NPT Review Conference in 2015 will be a much rockier affair, and attention will be on the state seen to take the blame. They don’t want to be that state.

That goes for Iran too. They will want to avoid the blame traps laid by others, and they would be well advised to avoid the grandstanding sometimes characteristic of Iranian diplomacy and instead see the opportunities for quiet but assertive engagement. They are already investing efforts to establish closer informal regional alliances of mutual interest that could be used to defend the integrity of the process and talk up the mutual regional security benefits.

Of course, if participating states are simply engaged in this game of musical chairs, where the loser receives a pile of opprobrium from the international community and further isolation, this is all a long way away from progress towards a WMD-free zone in the region. And one has to be realistic when assessing the chances of progress next year. However, with the penalties of exit high, the process may yet have sufficient legs in the long run to actually surprise us. And be ready for surprises – this is after all a region in unpredictable turmoil.

I feel I should add that many people reading this post will be asking why BASIC is engaging in this exercise. (Here’s the Tehran conference programme:  We have a strong responsibility to understand what is going on from the Iranian perspective – Iran will need to be involved in the solution, not simply a target of sanctions. Iran clearly has a case to answer with the IAEA, left unsatisfied with the level of cooperation shown up to now. Equally, from an Iranian perspective, it has been hounded and restrained from activities that other states such as Japan and Brazil have had full freedom to pursue. True, it hid those activities for several years, and possibly still does. True, the logic in the detail of its nuclear programme suggests an intention to acquire the option of developing nuclear weapons. However, a rush to judgement and a strategy of isolation ignores other rational explanations, is counter-productive, and is also familiar to Iranians as a continuing legacy of empire.

This is not to take Iran’s side – but simply to say that we too in the West have a case to answer with the Iranians, and a case to answer when it comes to our nuclear policies. And that means the best approach is a healthy exchange that seeks to both communicate and hear perspectives, expressed honestly with a view to respectful engagement, and to find the common ground that will pave the way to accommodation, and hopefully progress. As six former European Ambassadors pointed out in op-ed articles in the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times – that will not come from a policy of isolation and unrealistic negotiating positions backed up by sanctions.

These are the personal views of the author.

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