There is a political ritual that has a boring and repetitive quality to it, but the outcome of which could prove essential for regional peace. It is called diplomacy.
Every few months the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) releases a report assessing Iran’s nuclear status and progress. Within hours a dispute erupts between Iran and its defenders and the West and most security analysts. Supporters of Iran claim that the report amounts to a clean bill of health given that the IAEA finds that Iran’s known nuclear activities are not diverted for military purposes. Critics of Iran’s nuclear effort argue that Tehran’s lack of transparency in key areas of its nuclear progress and its failure to stop the enrichment of uranium, a clear demand of the UN Security Council, show its resolve to develop a military nuclear capability.
Soon the US, the UK and France call for stiffer multilateral sanctions and produce a draft resolution that lists Iranian companies and individuals suspected of involvement in the nuclear programme. Stern language threatening additional measures is included. Then, under Russian and Chinese pressure, the draft is toned down and the threatening language dropped; a milder version, limiting the pain and reach, is adopted under Chapter VII, making the resolution international law.
The conventional wisdom correctly judges that Iran once again benefits from divisions among the great powers (even more so this time, as tensions between the US and Russia over Georgia would make even the weakest resolution a miracle), that US diplomatic weakness in the last months of the George W Bush administration is again exposed, and that Iran will probably continue on its nuclear trajectory. The Iranian leadership remains defiant, though shaken that Russia and China have again spoken against its nuclear ambitions.
Then enter the EU, China and Russia, joined recently by the United States, to offer a package to Iran in exchange for its suspension of uranium enrichment, an offer that gets sweeter as time goes but is invaraiably rebuffed by Iran.
This routine could shatter one’s illusions about the power of diplomacy; it is long, painful and frustrating, and there is no guarantee of success. Yet there is no dance more important to international stability than this painstaking effort to build a global consensus to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power and prevent a new cycle of instability in the Middle East.
Many debate the merits of this venture. Some decry the apparent nuclear apartheid: why is Israel allowed to have nuclear weapons and not Iran, they ask. The answer would not please them: Israel did not breach the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in its nuclear quest, but Iran did, even obtaining nuclear technology from the infamous AQ Khan network. And Iran failed to disclose its activities until it was exposed. This does not make Israel’s nuclear arsenal any less destabilising. But while Israel’s psyche is primarily motivated by the fear of annihilation, Iran is driven by the quest for power and prestige.
Others think that a new balance of power could do some good to the region, restraining at last the perceived aggressiveness of the US. This reasoning is both linear and simplistic. The US, for good and for bad, provides a measure of order in the Gulf that no other local or external actor can. And the Middle East with a nuclear Iran will probably be more disorderly as everyone struggles to adjust to the new equation. Some countries will accommodate Iran, others will oppose it, perhaps even at the cost of going nuclear themselves. And more nukes certainly cannot be better for the inhabitants of the region.
Thankfully, the great powers are increasingly concerned about that outcome. Russia, which once lacked a sense of urgency about this, now realises that a nuclear neighbour on its southern border does not bode well, especially if Turkey, Iran’s rival that also controls Russia’s access to the Mediterranean, goes nuclear too. China worries about Middle Eastern instability and energy supplies. Europe fears nuclear competition and the possibility of lasting and expanding conflicts at its gates.
But the US holds the key. Washington finds itself with no option between suicidal escalation and an opening to Iran that builds on this diplomatic groundwork. Washington has moved a long way towards dialogue, probably more than Tehran. The US and Iran already talk about Iraq and a US envoy even joined the nuclear talks. Five former US secretaries of state, Republicans and Democrats, have urged the next US president to open talks with Iran, and Barack Obama has pledged to do so. Clearly many in Washington realise the stakes.
But it is still unclear what Iran’s nuclear goal is. In fact, the Iranian leadership itself probably does not know. A bomb would inevitably lead to international condemnation, pulverise any remaining trust in Iranian goals and statements, induce a regional arms race and exacerbate regional tensions. This would solidify Iran’s pariah status, something few Iranians want.
Or Iran could amass enough highly enriched uranium but stop short of weaponising it. This would allow Iran to look clean while acting nasty and, if need be, it could then build a bomb in a matter of weeks. This ambiguity would be nerve-wracking for all. Israel would be jittery, the Arab states would be in a state of limbo, the US would not know whether to extend a security guarantee and, if it did, whether its allies would even accept it.
Iran is still a long way from a bomb, and cooler heads in Tehran might prevail. And diplomacy may have a greater chance if a moderate Iranian president follows an Obama victory. It takes two to tango, indeed.