Very wise piece on the complexities of negotiating with Iran by Philip Stephens in today’s UK Financial Times.
The who-said-what game about last weekend’s talks in Geneva has become a distraction. The six-power negotiations with Tehran to curb Iran’s nuclear programme may yet succeed or fail. But wrangling between the US and France on the terms of an acceptable deal should not allow the trees to obscure the forest. The organising facts shaping the negotiations have not changed.
The first of these is that Tehran’s acquisition of a bomb would be more than dangerous for the Middle East and for wider international security. It would most likely set off a nuclear arms race that would see Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt signing up to the nuclear club. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty would be shattered. A future regional conflict could draw Israel into launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike. This is not a region obviously susceptible to cold war disciplines of deterrence.
The second ineluctable reality is that Iran has mastered the nuclear cycle. How far it is from building a bomb remains a subject of debate. Different intelligence agencies give different answers. These depend in part on what the spooks actually know and in part on what their political masters want others to hear. The progress of an Iranian warhead programme is one of the known unknowns that have often wreaked havoc in this part of the world.
Israel points to an imminent threat. European agencies are more relaxed, suggesting Tehran is still two years or so away from a weapon. Western diplomats broadly agree that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not taken a definitive decision to step over the line. What Iran has been seeking is what diplomats call a breakout capability – the capacity to dash to a bomb before the international community could effectively mobilise against it.
The third fact – and this one is hard for many to swallow – is that neither a negotiated settlement nor the air strikes long favoured by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, can offer the rest of the world a watertight insurance policy.
It should be possible to construct a deal that acts as a plausible restraint – and extends the timeframe for any breakout – but no amount of restrictions or intrusive monitoring can offer a certain guarantee against Tehran’s future intentions.
By the same token, bombing Iran’s nuclear sites could certainly delay the programme, perhaps for a couple of years. But, assuming that even the hawkish Mr Netanyahu is not proposing permanent war against Iran, air strikes would not end it.
You cannot bomb knowledge and technical expertise. To try would be to empower those in Tehran who say the regime will be safe only when, like North Korea, it has a weapon. So when Barack Obama says the US will never allow Iran to get the bomb he is indulging in, albeit understandable, wishful thinking.
The best the international community can hope for is that, in return for a relaxation of sanctions, Iran will make a judgment that it is better off sticking with a threshold capability. To put this another way, if Tehran does step back from the nuclear brink it will be because of its own calculation of the balance of advantage.
The fourth element in this dynamic is that Iran now has a leadership that, faced with the severe and growing pain inflicted by sanctions, is prepared to talk. There is nothing to say that Hassan Rouhani, the president, is any less hard-headed than previous Iranian leaders, but he does seem ready to weigh the options.
Seen from this vantage point – and in spite of the inconclusive outcome – Geneva can be counted a modest success. Iran and the US broke the habit of more than 30 years and sat down to talk to each other. Know your enemy is a first rule of diplomacy – and of intelligence. John Kerry has his detractors but, unlike his predecessor Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state understands that serious diplomacy demands a willingness to take risks.
The Geneva talks illuminated the shape of an interim agreement. Iran will not surrender the right it asserts to uranium enrichment, but will lower the level of enrichment from 20 per cent to 3 or 4 per cent. It will suspend work on its heavy water reactor in Arak – a potential source of plutonium – negotiate about the disposal of some of its existing stocks of enriched uranium, and accept intrusive international inspections. A debate between the six powers about the strength and credibility of such pledges is inevitable, as is an argument with Tehran about the speed and scope of a run down of sanctions.
If there is an agreement when talks resume later this month, it will not satisfy hardliners on either side. The challenges to Mr Obama from those in Washington who think the US should be ready to start another Middle East war will be mirrored by opposition from the more reactionary elements in Tehran to any concessions to the “Great Satan”. Sad to say, Mr Obama does not have a great record in winning arguments in Congress, while no one really knows the limits of Ayatollah Khamenei’s negotiating flexibility.
So far Mr Netanyahu’s government, in tune with the Gulf states, has had nothing to say beyond denouncing any deal. The message from Israel and from Saudi Arabia, its ally on this, is that Iran must be kept in a permanent state of isolated enfeeblement, lest it re-emerge as the region’s most powerful actor. They point to Tehran’s support for Hizbollah and for the murderous Assad regime in Syria.
The interests of almost everyone else are otherwise. Not to be tricked by smooth talking into making it easier for Iran to acquire the bomb, but to open a well-policed pathway that would allow it eventually to rejoin the community of nations. There is no guarantee this strategy will work even if an interim accord is reached during the second round of talks, but, to paraphrase a famous British statesman, it is better than all the alternatives.