Cool heads required
02 July 2012 | Gareth Evans
At the first two rounds of new talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany), in Istanbul in April and Baghdad in May, both sides stumbled along the edge of the precipice. Now, after the third round in Moscow, they are holding on by nomore than their fingernails.
Neither side has been prepared to compromise on any substantive issue. They did agree – barely – to low-level experts meeting early in July.
By then, new European and US sanctions on Iranian oil exports will be in force, and the US Congress is pushing to apply more.
War talk is near the surface in Israel, and anxiety is mounting that, in the climate of a US election year, escalation might not be containable.
Although the two sides’ positions in the current set of talks have not been as far apart as before, their core demands so far are irreconcilable.
The six powers insist on three things.
First, Iran must halt all enrichment of uranium to 20% purity (a level required for research, but only a short step from weapons grade).
Second, Iran must swap its existing 20% stockpile for fuel capable of use only in the Tehran Research Reactor. The final demand is that Iran shut its underground enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom.
In return for all this, no new sanctions would be imposed, and access to aircraft spare parts would ease. But Iran seeks more: at least formal recognition of its “inalienable right to enrich” uranium, no shutting of a facility, and a significant cut in sanctions.
There are several sub-texts underlying the stand-off, superbly analyzed in a report this month from the International Crisis Group. On the P5+1 side, there has been a perception that Iran is reeling under the sanctions.
But Iran sees the West – amid the economic turmoil in Europe, and US President Barack Obama’s re-election bid – as desperate to avoid a conflict that would rise oil prices.
Each side is exaggerating its strengths and the other’s weaknesses. In particular, the global powers are underestimating Iran’s resilience.
The most common view of security and intelligence experts worldwide is that, while Iran may seek technical breakout capability to build a nuclear weapon Japan now has, it is still far from making a usable atomic weapon, and has made no decision to do so.
But those assessments will prove to be naïve unless Iran, at the very least, verifiably suspends any enrichment beyond 5%, renders its 20% stockpile incapable of military application, and opens to intrusive monitoring.
In return, the P5+1 must be prepared to modify its demands. They should note the legally correct position under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is that Iran does have a right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.
And the P5+1 must to wind back sanctions as Iran takes each reasonable step required of it.
That way notes the current situation is unsustainable; inflammatory confrontation is closer than we think; and catastrophe can be averted only by cool, level-headed diplomacy that, until now, has been in short supply.
Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, co-chaired the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.
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