x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Diplomacy still has role in Iran nuclear crisis

Both the US and Iran will need to bring more than vague promises to the table later this month if they want to end the standoff.

In the continuing dispute between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear programme, symbols have long been more meaningful than rhetoric. Which is why this weekend brought a much needed reminder that despite long odds, diplomacy may yet play a part in ending the standoff.

On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Iran welcomed a US offer to hold direct talks between the two countries. It was not the first time bilateral talks were mooted, but that this latest pledge was offered by US vice president, Joe Biden, suggests greater support from Washington than in the past.

The trouble will come when - and if - both sides do sit down later this month in Kazakhstan, as planned. In the lead-up to talks last June, the last time the parties were to meet, Tehran insisted economic sanctions be lifted before any serious discussions start. That didn't happen then, and is unlikely to happen now. In fact, with the same breath Mr Biden endorsed diplomacy he called for measures to be "backed by pressure".

What, then, do the two sides have to discuss that is new?

Conditions may finally be ripe for a breakthrough; much has changed in the eight months since their last meeting. Iran is being squeezed by the sanctions Mr Biden favours, and its regional influence is challenged as the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria teeters. The Obama administration, for its part, enters its second term in desperate need of a foreign policy victory. A resolution of the Iranian nuclear standoff begins to look possible when compared to the chaos in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

Pessimism is of course understandable. On the very day the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, called Mr Biden's proposal "a step forward", Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled a domestically built stealth fighter jet. Iranian officials have also said they plan to increase the pace of uranium enrichment at Natanz - a move criticised even by Russia, which is helping Iran operate its nuclear power plant at Bushehr. And Tehran continues to restrict UN access to some sites.

Mr Salehi does not control Iran's nuclear file; that work is done by Saeed Jalili, who maintains a direct line of communication with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the foreign minister's statement confirms that, at the very least, diplomacy remains just a talking point within Iranian circles.

If the US and Iran truly seek an end to the standoff both sides must offer more than vague promises later this month. In a region with no shortage of calamity, even the slightest hint of progress is worth support.