THIS WEEK – Possible breakthrough over Iran’s nuclear program?

Reprinted by The Hill’s Congress blog.

Iran resumes talks on its nuclear program with the EU, US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany on Thursday and Friday, in Istanbul. Previous talks in early December produced very little in terms of concrete results, but were hailed as successful because it was the first time the parties had met for several months, and discussions were broad and free-ranging. Familiar warnings have already been heard that these talks represent a last opportunity to find compromise, though with a twist. In the past it had been the Israelis who warned of a ticking time bomb, and the Iranians who seemed to believe time was on their side. This time it was President Ahmadinejad who warned his negotiating partners last week that they had little time to come up with concrete and attractive proposals; whilst Israel’s outgoing intelligence head, Meir Dagan, suggested that Iran was now at least four years from achieving a nuclear capability. Whether this had to do with Hillary Clinton’s claims that sanctions were working, or the claimed effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer virus, or simply the evolving diplomatic calculations of the parties concerned, we may never know.

As officials prepare for the talks in Istanbul, they would do well to rise above the immediate concerns, the tactical successes or failures, and remember that beyond the demands, the red lines, the punishments, the talk of threats, the incentives, the rhetoric, the reputations, the media images and games played, there are also deeper, common interests that could be developed that could dramatically change the game for the better. Last week author and journalist Stephen Kinzer whilst in London to promote his new book, proposed that the United States and its western allies would do well to reconsider their alignment in the Middle East, and put more effort into deepening their relationship with Turkey, and with Iran. The fall of the government in Tunis in what has variously been described as the first ever overthrow of an Arab premier by mass uprising, underlined comments made last week by Secretary of State Clinton in Doha warning Middle East allies to open up socially and politically. She implicitly acknowledged that the contest in the region goes beyond nuclear issues, and will ultimately be decided in hearts and minds. The US Government itself would do well to think imaginatively about where its allegiances lie, and its strategies for reigning back existing and potential nuclear threats in the region.

Currently Iran presents an important challenge to the integrity of the non-proliferation regime, but this does not mean that the challenge is best dealt with by heavy-handed threats and isolation. Whilst this is partly down to political calculation and competition within Tehran itself, much of the Iranian challenge results from responses to what it sees as the strategically hostile environment created by the United States and her allies. This has become a contest of wills. As such, it can be transformed by a change in strategy on either side. There is nothing inevitable about the diplomatic conflict playing out in Istanbul. If both sides can find common ground that would be a big shot in the arm for the global nuclear disarmament vision espoused in recent years.

These are the personal views of the author.

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