x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Honest nuclear talks would be in Iran's interest

Iran's nuclear policy has long been based on ambiguity, developing all of the necessary parts of a military nuclear capability without taking the irreversible step towards weaponisation.

Defenders of Iran's nuclear secrets are accustomed to operating in the shadows. With the recent assassination of a nuclear scientist, and the apparently successful cyber-strike on the country's enrichment facilities, it's easy to see why.

But as Iran and world leaders prepare to sit down in Geneva tomorrow for the first high-level discussions in over a year, we hope Iranian politicians try another tack: putting their cards on the table.

In Bahrain at the weekend, the United States did just that. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, acknowledged Iran's legitimate right to a civilian nuclear programme. The caveat, she said, was that Tehran had to act "responsibly" for this right to be recognised.

This will be more difficult to achieve than it should be. Iran's nuclear policy has long been based on ambiguity, developing all of the necessary parts of a military nuclear capability without taking the irreversible step towards weaponisation. This leaves its neighbours understandably concerned, but lacking a smoking gun.

Some leaders in Iran will be loath to change course. It has made incremental progress on its nuclear programme while many other countries have dithered over the appropriate response.

But being shifty is a strategy that will only get Iran so far. In talks last year, Tehran agreed to ship uranium abroad for enrichment, a plan that would greatly diffuse international concerns about a weapons project, but the deal fell apart within days. That raises doubts about the quality of any promise made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration.

Few expect a major breakthrough this week, but any movement could go a long way in tamping down the region's growing impatience and tensions that are rising across the Gulf. According to the American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, there is a growing lobby for a military solution. Iran has as much responsibility in preventing that eventuality as anyone.

Tehran can easily convince its neighbours and negotiators across the table that its programme will remain peaceful: allow unfettered inspections at all of its nuclear sites (including the erstwhile secret facility near Qom). The other side should put another enrichment deal on the table to reopen that option as well. That would enervate the argument for war and make it much more likely that punitive sanctions would be eased.

Whether Tehran's domestic politics permit such a deal is an open question. But until its leaders can make their position clear at the table, they cannot be treated as responsible partners.