European Union-led nuclear negotiations with Iran resume this weekend in Istanbul. The European Union – on behalf of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – has pursued diplomatic talks with Iran for almost eight years, to convince Tehran to resolve suspicions about the peaceful aims of its nuclear programme.
Brussels’ officials are pessimistic about the upcoming talks, disillusioned with Tehran’s past games. Previous negotiations have followed a dead-end pattern of swopping uranium enrichment ultimatums, resulting in zero progress. Suspicious of its past over-ups, the Security Council has demanded that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment. Tehran says it has already reached a twenty percent enrichment threshold, which complies with international rules on civil nuclear power, but is the key to mastering the know-how for weapons-grade uranium.
If Iran acquired a nuclear weapons capability the consequences could be very grave. It would not only question the efficacy of the Nuclear-Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, it might also encourage other major powers in an already-turbulent region, such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to start weapons-grade nuclear programmes of their own. Worse, an actual Iranian nuclear weapon would probably lead to war. Israeli officials talk openly about pre-emptively bombing suspect plants in Iran, similar to strikes they carried out in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, since Tehran has previously said that it wanted to ‘wipe Israel off the map’.
The President of the United States, Barack Obama, has said that loose talk of bombing Iran should be constrained. Using military force against Iran would be extremely risky. Most experts agree that airstrikes would only delay Iran’s programme and shore up domestic support for the regime. Israeli bombings could unleash a backlash against the West from Tehran-sponsored Hezbollah, Shiites in Iraq or sympathisers in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. And military action in and around the straits of Hormuz would surely drive up the price of oil, choking off the fragile recovery in the global economy.
The diplomatic stalemate on how much uranium Iran can enrich (if any) will be very difficult to overcome. Last September Iranian President Ahmadinejad offered to halt production of uranium enrichment at twenty percent in return for reactor fuel to make medical isotopes. This was rejected outright by France and Israel. Their harsh reaction doesn’t come as a surprise, since the combination of a nuclear capability with a radical ideology is the heart of the problem.
If diplomacy is to resolve the Iranian impasse a new formula is needed. Instead of repeating the enrichment merry-go-round, the European Union’s negotiators should take a leaf out of Ronald Reagan’s proverb book. During negotiations with the Soviet Union on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, signed in 1987, President Reagan repeatedly told Moscow ‘trust but verify’. Similarly, Brussels’ negotiators should propose to Iran that both sides ‘freeze but recognise’.
This formula would require Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment at its current level, but recognise Israel’s existence – at least in an implicit way similar to Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Algeria. In return, the European Union would freeze its upcoming sanctions on Iranian oil (and Israelis would stop talking of military action) but recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium up to the current level of twenty percent. ‘Freeze but recognise’ will not appeal to all negotiators, not least because Iran would keep its uranium enrichment capacity. And it could not work unless Iran accompanied freezing enrichment with the implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty which includes random spot-checks by United Nations-mandated inspectors.
But this formula would give Iran the recognition it craves from the West, and could be a starting point for easing sanctions in return for constructive nuclear cooperation and a radical change in Tehran’s behaviour towards Israel. An Iranian recognition of the reality of Israel would help remove Tel Aviv’s rationale for military strikes (and encourage other recalcitrant governments in the region to re-consider their Israel policies). Such a breakthrough might even signal the start of a new more responsible relationship between the West and Iran, eventually discussing subjects of common interest such as energy and Afghanistan.
The time for such a change is ripe: recent parliamentary elections strengthened the hand of Ayatollah Khamenei and conservatives in Tehran at the expense of Ahmadinejad’s radicals. The pragmatism of business people is strongest amongst the conservative faction, and whilst not democratic-minded, they want better relations with the West for economic reasons. Western sanctions on Iranian oil supplies will start to bite from July, and over time may suffocate Iran’s economy – a prospect many conservatives find more frightening than military action.
There should be no illusions about how difficult negotiations with Iran will be in the coming months, and success is by no means certain. If a new formula can help avoid another war in the Middle East, save the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, and avoid a huge shock for the fragile global economy, then it is worth trying.
Daniel Keohane is Head of Strategic Affairs at FRIDE and Walter Posch is a Senior Associate at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.