On Feb. 18, negotiators from the United States, Iran, Europe, Russia and China met in Vienna to set about producing a comprehensive solution to concerns aroused by Iran’s nuclear program. The talks concluded last Thursday, when agreement was reached on a framework for negotiations on a comprehensive deal.
These negotiations are the best opportunity in years for the United States and Europe to bring policy into line with reality, and to put in place arrangements that will leave Iran with every incentive to respect its international nuclear obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1970.
Policy and facts have been misaligned since 2005, when the United States and Europe decided to coerce Iran into abandoning part of its nuclear program and the enrichment of uranium. They did this because they believed that Iran intended to use its enrichment plants to make weapons-grade enriched uranium and ultimately manufacture nuclear weapons.
Western governments had no evidence of that intention. They simply inferred it from evidence that Iran had been conducting covert research into developing a uranium-enrichment capability that could possibly be turned into aspects of nuclear-weapons technology.
An alternative inference – that Iran was conducting research as a hedge against a collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, or to deter potential aggressors, as a dozen or more NPT parties have done at one time or another – was not made.
This misalignment became more pronounced at the end of 2007, when the U.S. intelligence community made public a threat assessment of Iran. In its judgment, Iran had abandoned systematic research into weapons technology in 2003, and Iran’s leaders, who were assessed to be “rational actors,” had decided not to produce nuclear weapons.
There is a big difference between seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and seeking to develop a nuclear hedging strategy. The former can reasonably be considered a threat to international peace and security, but the latter cannot. The former is outlawed by the NPT. The latter, if done within certain limits, is not.
Yet, since the end of 2007, the United States and Europe have persisted in treating Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to peace and security. They have continued to insist that Iran “suspend” (a euphemism for “abandon”) its enrichment activities. They have waged cyberwarfare against the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. They have turned a blind eye to the assassination of Iranian scientists. They have piled sanctions onto the Iranian economy (at considerable cost to their own traders and investors, as well as to ordinary Iranians).
Mercifully, the tide started to turn in 2013. The June 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani opened up for Western leaders the option of a switch from coercion to negotiation. Meanwhile, it finally dawned on American and European advisers that without evidence of a threat to peace and security, the West had no legitimate option but to tolerate Iranian possession of a uranium-enrichment capability.
How much will the tide turn? That is hard to say. Iran and the West are still far apart on some aspects of their negotiating agenda. In both Tehran and Washington, political opposition to the necessary reciprocal compromises is strong.
In Tehran, Rouhani has the support of the Iranian people, and has been authorized by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to negotiate. But conservative clerics and legislators, who see him as a political opponent, fear his ascension (due in large part to the negotiations). They fear even more that a deal will usher in a period of détente that could undermine the achievements of Iran’s Islamic revolution.
In Washington, Republican and some Democratic legislators have been echoing Israeli demands for the negotiations to result in the dismantlement of Iran’s “nuclear infrastructure” – an unattainable goal – and have been pretending to believe that heaping more sanctions on Iran will strengthen the U.S. administration’s negotiating hand. With the help of California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s wise intervention, the administration has seen them off. But they will be back – Israel’s prime minister will see to that.
Nonetheless, success looks more likely than failure at this point. There are technical solutions available that can largely resolve residual Western proliferation concerns while allowing Iran to develop a peaceful nuclear power program.
The American and European negotiators must aim for an agreement that leaves Iran with much to lose and nothing to gain by succumbing to the temptations of acquiring a bomb. They must exploit Iran’s hunger for respect and avoid stoking resentment.
The Iranian negotiators, in turn, must recognize that concealing parts of their nuclear program for 18 years created a trust deficit. They must prove that they deserve the trust of the international community. It will take years for Iran to build back that trust. In the meantime, self-restraint should be their lodestar, especially in the development of civil nuclear technologies that could have military applications.
Peter Jenkins was permanent representative of the United Kingdom to the International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations organizations in Vienna, after serving as U.K. Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. He specializes in trade liberalization, energy security and nuclear issues (non-proliferation and disarmament). He is a frequent commentator on the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).