x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Offer Iran a chance to compromise

Sanctions are a tool to get Iran to talk about its nuclear plans. There is now a hint that Iran is ready to talk; this should be explored.

Banking, trade and other sanctions imposed by the US, the EU and other countries are whittling steadily into Iran's economic and social fabric. This is being done to convince Tehran that its dogged persistence of an ambiguous nuclear programme is essentially self-destructive. Sanctions are meant to influence behaviour, not to punish the Iranian people.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Thursday that he is ready for new talks with the outside world about Iran's uranium-enrichment programme, which experts say is moving the country not only towards nuclear power plants but also towards atom bombs.

The optimistic view is that Mr Ahmadinejad's statement may offer a genuine opening towards a negotiated end to this prolonged stand-off. With Iran to restart talks with IAEA inspectors today, there could be some room for compromise.

The pessimistic view is that he speaks for only one faction of a seriously divided national leadership, and that even if he has somehow won full agreement from the religious leadership and the Republican Guard, this is all probably just another stall. The last set of talks, with Iran across the table from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, collapsed in Istanbul a year ago, when Iran rejected a fuel-swap plan.

It's not easy to be optimistic. But sanctions, with all their hardship for the 78 million Iranians, have been imposed precisely to bring Iran to the table; Mr Ahmadinejad's offer, if that's what it is, deserves to be tested.

Iranians insist, correctly, that they have every right to peaceful nuclear power. The challenge in new talks would be to find a way to get Iran to back away from building nuclear-weapons capacity without a loss of face: nobody in Iran's leadership will support any accord that leads ordinary Iranians, or the world, to see the government as weak.

That may rule out the fuel-swap concept, which calls for Iran to import reactor fuel, rather than producing its own, a plan with the advantage of depriving Iran of the capacity to produce weapons-grade fissile material.

If a fuel swap is off the table, the next possibility would be the Japanese model. That country has an advanced nuclear-energy industry but has stopped short of weapons development. Iran would have to guarantee permanent access for IAEA monitors.

Even US missiles cannot erase what Iranian scientists have learnt about how to build a bomb. But prevailing upon Iran to take no more steps would be an acceptable way to settle this dangerous stand-off.