x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dialogue with Iran - is it back on track?

Analysis The development of the republic's nuclear programme is entering an unsure - and possibly dangerous - phase.

Iran's test firing of missiles was a message of defiance to its western critics.
Iran's test firing of missiles was a message of defiance to its western critics.

GENEVA // A meeting that boasts as one of its main accomplishments an agreement to hold another meeting may sound like a bad office joke. But following a week of bluster, posturing and threats of extensive economic sanctions, Thursday's landmark talks over Iran's nuclear programme represented the equivalent of a modest salary raise. Prior to the meeting in Geneva, both Iranian and US officials made it known privately that they were serious about the talks but doubted the other side was. Among long-time observers of international efforts to clarify Tehran's nuclear ambitions there also were worries that the Iranians would arrive at the talks angry, on the defensive and adamant that there was no problem to discuss. Similarly, they fretted that the United States would arrive with its hackles raised, compelled to follow through on its recent rhetoric and act tougher than expected.

By all accounts, the worst-case scenario did not occur. Initial leaks from participants in the talks were sprinkled liberally with the description "cordial", and US President Barack Obama, speaking in Washington, called the meeting "constructive". There were practical results, too. Negotiators from Iran, the US and five other world powers agreed to meet again by the end of the month to discuss Tehran's nuclear programme, and the Iranians agreed to "immediate and full" access for international inspectors to a newly disclosed uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom. More significantly, Iran also agreed - in principle - to export its low-grade uranium to France and Russia for enrichment, a process that would turn it into fuel that could be used for peaceful purposes but not weapons.

Yet, what the negotiators did not achieve is any certainty that the Iranian government would follow through with the agreements or indeed comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In June, the Iranian political establishment was shaken to its core by the massive demonstrations that followed disputed presidential elections. Since then, like all governments whose legitimacy has been widely questioned, the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has acted tough at almost every turn.

Some officials seated across from the Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili on Thursday believe that is proof that Tehran and the deeply fractured society upon which it sits is vulnerable to pressure. Others believe the events of June make the government less willing to compromise at the negotiating table, lest it appear even weaker than it is. Whatever the case, what seems clear is that the seven-year development of Iran's nuclear programme is entering a new and more unpredictable - and possibly more dangerous - phase, even as the pace of negotiations steps up and intensifies. History shows that as fast as talks are back on track, they can just as quickly fly off the rails.

Iran's test firing of two missiles seemed to demonstrate that it was hardly conscience-stricken over its belated disclosure to the Iranian public and the rest of the world that it was building a new uranium enrichment facility. According to Washington, it was the third time that Iran had been caught cheating. The underground enrichment plant at Natanz was made known in 2002 only after an Iranian dissident group exposed it. Two years ago, the international community discovered that Iran had sought to design a nuclear warhead only because of the success of US spy agencies hacking into Iran's computer networks.

As talks gain pace, getting Iran to come clean and co-operate fully with the UN Security Council and the IAEA will probably continue to prove excruciatingly difficult. For the US, France and Britain, Iran's most ardent detractors, leverage is hard to come by. The threat of economic sanctions and travel bans against a nation led by a theocracy that has elevated austerity to the level of religious virtue is often feeble. "They don't want to go shopping for their wives in Paris; they don't want to go visit their bank accounts in Geneva," Danielle Pletka, an expert in the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, noted wryly this week, referring to a proposed international travel embargo on Iranian officials and their families.

Even the danger of outside military strikes aimed at taking out its nuclear facilities is brushed aside by some factions and apocalyptists in the Iranian political and clerical establishment, who regard conflict with the infidel West as a sign of the coming of the Mahdi, or guided one, whose appearance will usher in a golden age of justice and peace to be followed by judgment day. For Emiratis and residents of other small nations of the Gulf, Thursday's talks are unlikely to allay the alarm about Iran, which has been building for months, if not years.

Ebtisam Alkitbi, a professor of political science at UAE University, recently called Iran - not Israel, al Qa'eda, Hizbollah or Hamas - the main and "immediate" danger to the stability of the Emirates and the Middle East. Ms Alkitbi said any deal between the major powers and Iran would jeopardise Emirati interests unless Abu Dhabi is consulted. "We are closer to Iran than the United States and our interests are more directly affected. The UAE should have a seat at the table."

At the same time, support by Ms Alkitbi and other Emiratis for efforts by world powers to compel Tehran to comply with IAEA regulations creates political quandaries, not least putting them uncomfortably on the side of one of Tehran's most outspoken enemies: Israel. Yet with the danger of nuclear proliferation widening, disengagement and avoiding disagreeable leaders appear to be no option for the international community, whether the case is Iran or North Korea, the world's other nuclear hot spot.

A newly released assessment by a former US nuclear negotiator with North Korea argues, for instance, that the US must take action to engage the government of Kim Jong Il before a new and unpredictable leader takes over. In the meantime, the US and the rest of the international community must learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. cnelson@thenational.ae