A feeling akin to dizziness is being produced by the coverage of the resumption of talks on ending the Iranian nuclear stand-off. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, wants a result within six months – nothing short of a miracle for a process which has stumbled on for a decade.
An anonymous White House official praised the “intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations” between Iran and the six-nation international contact group over two days this week.
Optimism is understandable. The outlines of a deal to return the nuclear programme to international control have been clear for years: Iran would renounce enrichment of uranium beyond five per cent, which is significantly below the level required for a nuclear weapon, and would open all its sites to snap inspections.
The highly enriched uranium that Iran has produced would be put beyond use as a weapon, preferably by being sent abroad, though Iran has rejected this idea. In return, the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations, the US and the European Union would be lifted.
Such a deal would allow Iran to master the nuclear fuel cycle, while bringing its actions in line with the declarations of its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Iran has no intention of building a nuclear weapon. Such statements are often repeated but raise many doubts. If this is true, why has Iran gone down a clandestine path that has forced it into international isolation?
The negotiations are being conducted by a group of six countries called the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain, France, China, Russia and the US plus Germany. These countries accept Mr Rouhani’s outstretched hand. For the first time, they are discussing what a final agreement might look like, as opposed to setting out uncompromising positions and raking over old grudges.
Even with the best political will around the negotiating table, there remains a more serious obstacle, and that is the lack of trust. This will manifest itself in the simple question of who goes first. The Iranians insist that the first stage should be the easing of sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy. The P5+1 want to start with an immediate end to uranium enrichment and resumption of snap inspections.
The issue of who goes first is a common one in diplomacy, and it gets to the heart of the issue of trust. Both sides have reasons to distrust the other. Iran sees the war started by Saddam Hussein in 1980 as the work not just of a dictator but of the West as a whole. The US knew of the invasion plan and helped the Iraqi armed forces with targeting information. France loaned Super-Etendard strike aircraft to the Iraqi air force to attack Iranian shipping, while European companies provided the technology for Iraq’s chemical weapons that were used with devastating effect against Iran.
Iran is still bitter at the fate of Iran Air flight 655 flying from Bandar Abbas to Dubai in 1988, shot down by the US navy with the loss of 290 lives, almost all of them Iranian.
On the American side, the 1979 occupation of the US embassy in Tehran and the 444-day hostage crisis have not been forgotten. Nor is Iran’s use of its Lebanese surrogates to blow up the US embassy in Beirut and a US marine base.
Despite this bitter legacy, there have been times when Washington and Tehran have worked behind the scenes when their interests coincide. But in the end, the outcome has led to even more suspicion.
After the September 11 attacks, the US and Iran had a common interest in toppling the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Ryan Crocker, a senior US diplomat who recently retired as ambassador to Kabul, recalls clandestine visits to coordinate with Iranian officials in Geneva. At the time, there were clear signs that Tehran was ready for a rethink of its relationship with America. But all this collapsed when George W Bush made his “Axis of Evil” speech, lumping Iran with Iraq and North Korea. Reformers in Tehran were put on the defensive for the sake of an empty sound bite. “One word in one speech changed history,” Mr Crocker told The New Yorker.
The diplomat tried again – this time through intermediaries – to engage Iran in rebuilding Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, to “flip an enemy into a friend”, as he puts it. But the balance of forces quickly changed. Iran was there for the long haul, but the US, for all the money spent and blood spilt, was just passing through.
Iranians and Americans know that what is said in the conference chamber may not reflect political reality. Mr Rouhani’s six-month timetable may reflect the fact that Mr Khamenei has given him that period to see what he can extract from the Americans, before he tries another tack. Likewise, lifting US sanctions will require the support of Congress, where regime change in Iran is a popular idea, as is putting a spoke in the wheels of all Barack Obama’s plans.
Both sides know that gaining the acquiescence of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems more popular in Congress than Mr Obama, is vital for the success of any agreement.
The stakes are high: for Mr Obama, it is a choice between peace and war. For Tehran, it is a matter of the stability of the clerical regime. What is more dangerous for the survival of the ayatollahs in power, enduring crippling sanctions or making a public compromise with the “Great Satan”? Any concessions that are not reciprocated by the Americans will severely damage the credibility of the mullahs, which is already tainted by their catastrophic stewardship of the economy. Another reason why trust is more than usually critical in this negotiation.
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