This week begins with Iranians celebrating their national day of nuclear technology today… and ends on Friday and Saturday with long-awaited critical talks between Iran and the E3+3 in Istanbul. Some may view the Iranian national day as a deliberately provocative act, but that would be to misunderstand the politics.
Iranians see their nuclear program as a demonstration of their scientific progress and abilities, all the more notable in the face of opposition from the great powers. Attempts to restrict technologies are seen by many in Iran not only as attempts to deny Iran the ability to develop nuclear weapons, but also to constrain their economic progress. As sanctions bite they feed into this narrative of external threat, isolation and self-sufficiency. If Iran can show its ability not only to survive, but to develop the very state-of-the-art technology that others seek to deny it and they believe gives them energy independence, it shows strength and purpose.
In such a context, even in a divided political society, support for Iran’s nuclear program has remained remarkably strong (though there may have been recent dips in support from some quarters), and politicians go out of their way to associate themselves with its achievements. One of the many hostages to this situation is any rational public debate around Iran’s energy choices and a lack of awareness of viable alternatives to nuclear, oil and gas. Another is flexibility within the negotiations.
The parties last met formally in January 2011 (also in Istanbul), but the talks were never really allowed to begin. A positive outcome from the talks this week, however cautious, will require both sides to develop their positions beyond simply strengthening their hand. The signals behind the scenes seem more favourable now. All participants would like to avoid a military strike, and there are indications that parties are more seriously considering proposals. We can only hope that amongst all the adulation of achievement within Iran today the leadership refrains from boxing itself into inflexible positions in advance of the talks. All sides will need credible face-saving exit strategies that they can explain clearly to their publics and opposition, because in this current game of chicken the stakes grow month by month. If this more positive opportunity presented by Istanbul is squandered, we will all regret it.
This article represents the personal views of the author.