x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Now is time for a deep breath on Iran crisis

Some calmer voices are being heard on Iran this week. That's fine, because this is a time for more diplomacy, not less.

The rhetoric between Iran and its sharpest critics has become somewhat less bellicose this past week. We can hope this means that some quiet diplomacy is under way, not only to defuse the immediate crisis but towards finding Iran a less troublesome role in the regional and global community.

Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, said on Wednesday that any decision to attack Iran's nuclear installations was "very far off", words that will be a relief for all who believe him. Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, expressed willingness to restart talks with western powers and China, most probably in Istanbul; an Iranian lawmaker has said US President Barack Obama has already privately proposed direct US-Iran talks. And Russia has very publicly cautioned that a military strike could lead to "catastrophe".

The Americans do seem to be reining in their more belligerent allies. The US chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen Martin Dempsey, arrived in Israel yesterday, reportedly to warn against a unilateral attack. A big US-Israeli spring defence exercise has been postponed. From many places, then, the same message echoed: everyone should take a deep breath.

True, there were also counter-currents in this past week. The US denied making any offer of bilateral talks. Some scoffed that Mr Salehi was just trying to forestall further EU sanctions, which could come as early as Monday. (Tehran does have a history of proposing negotiations as a delaying tactic). US officials also accused Iran of sending arms to the Syrian regime, and of helping Damascus evade oil sanctions.

In recent weeks, we have seen a ferment over a possible attack in part because US, Iranian and Israeli leaders have all been posturing, to varying degrees, for domestic and regional audiences. Now the gravity of the crisis, and the danger of drifting into war, seems to have prompted a responsible lowering of the temperature.

One complication is that Iran's government is not monolithic; Republican Guards, religious leaders and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's faction may each support a different response to the price inflation and diplomatic isolation taking a steadily tighter hold on the country.

But this is a time for more diplomacy, not less. Mr Salehi's mention of Istanbul recalls the nuclear fuel-swap proposal of 2010, which could be revived.

It is striking that China's Wen Jiabao, defending China's oil trade with Iran, also said on Wednesday with unusual bluntness: "China adamantly opposes Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons." If China is speaking to its Iranian trade partner behind the scenes, and if other diplomats are also busy, the recent alarming level of tension may soon be behind us. That would be good news for everyone.