For months, I have written of a "cul-de-sac" in the US and European approach towards Iran's nuclear issue. Putting the emphasis on sanctions to force the Islamic Republic to its economic knees and thus to concessions, Washington and its partners face a question as the months drag on. If the regime prefers to face the economic storm, trying to rally Iranian people against the supposed enemy causing hardship, what can be done next?
Will there be yet more sanctions --- to the point of approaching an effective embargo on all trade with Iran --- or will the "West" accept negotiations without demanding Iran's capitulation on key issues in advance?
Even with the deadlock in the last high-level talks last June, the Islamic Republic has pressed for discussions, notably over its "nine-stage" plan linking its suspension of enrichment of 20% uranium to the removal of sanctions. In a possible sign of good faith, it has converted almost half of its 20% stock into fuel plates, removing any possibility of the uranium being used for military purposes. However, the US and the European 3 (Britain, France, and Germany) appear to have stood firm on the demand for "stop, ship, and shut" --- stop the enrichment of 20% uranium, ship all existing stock outside Iran, and shut the enrichment plant at Fordoo.
There was a face-to-face discussion between the lead negotiators for Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia) in September. Equally significant, there were behind-the-scene talks between senior US and Iranian officials in the autumn. However, after a session in Qatar in early October --- reportedly including the Supreme Leader's senior advisor for foreign policy, Ali Akbar Velayati --- the negotiating trail went cold.
So back to the cul-de-sac, it seemed. However, in the last few days, a possibility seems to have arisen. Lead Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili announced that high-level talks with the 5+1 Powers will resume later this month. His counterpart, Catherine Ashton, has so far declined to confirm the resumption, although a spokesperson expressed hope for a meeting in the near-future. Meanwhile, US and European officials have been considered if there is a way forward before Iran's Presidential campaign, culminating in the June election, takes over.
Last month, while still expressing scepticism over any advance, I wrote with Nicholas J. Wheeler and Josh Baker, "The only way out of this dead-end is to make reciprocity meaningful by both sides committing themselves to actions which reassure the other and promote mutual security."
So what could constitute "meaningful reciprocity" and thus a platform for discussions? Here are five practical steps:
1. THE US AND EUROPE WITHDRAW THE "SHUT" FROM "STOP, SHUT, AND SHIP"
Some key Iranian officials have not been that far removed from the "Stop" and "Ship" demands of Washington. President Ahmadinejad, for example, has repeatedly suggested that Iran suspend its enrichment of 20% uranium in exchange for a guaranteed supply from outside powers.
The US and the European 3, however, have maintained the insistence on the closure of the recently-opened Fordoo enrichment plant, located in a mountainside in central Iran. Their argument appears to be that Iran could accept a deal now but, at any point, could re-start 20% enrichment with the installed centrifuges at Fordoo.
That argument has always seemed curious to me. Resuming the enrichment process is not a simple process like turning on a tap. More importantly, an agreement can include provisions for inspection and oversight of Fordoo's development. So why not let the plant operate for enrichment of up to 5%?
If the resumption of talks is announced, watch for any indication from Washington, London, Paris, or Berlin --- possibly done discreetly --- that "Shut" is no longer a requirement.
2. THE US AND EUROPE RECOGNISE IRAN'S RIGHT TO ENRICH TO 5%
This is the logical complement to Tehran's agreement to suspend 20% uranium. There is no scenario --- not even if the regime was to be replaced suddenly by a new Iranian system --- under which Iran's leaders will accept that they do not have the right to enrichment. That right is part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran, unlike Israel or Inida, is a signatory. Tehran's abrogation of that right is an effective abandonment of sovereignty.
3. THE US AND EUROPE OFFER MEANINGFUL SANCTIONS RELIEF
The deadlock in the last high-level talks in June was only part of the story. The Iranian delegation saw the supposed US-European offer over sanctions --- due to be escalated sharply on 1 July with the European Union's cut-off of imports of Iranian oil and suspension of insurance for Iranian tankers --- as an insult. Washington and its allies offered no more than the resumption of some shipments of aircraft parts to Tehran. Because the lack of those parts has been seen as a major factor in deadly air crashes, the Iranians took the supposed offer as an insult --- take "peanuts for diamonds", or accept that your people will continue to die.
The Iranian 9-step plan recognises that all sanctions cannot be removed in the early stage of negotiations. However, the "West" will have to come up with much more than the token aircraft measure --- remember that this is not a reward for Iran, rather a withdrawal of some of the recently-imposed punishments.
Significant steps would include relaxation of restrictions on Iran's financial transactions, including on the Central Bank, and a plan to withdraw sanctions on the energy sector.
4. THE IAEA AND IRAN MOVE TOWARDS A DEAL ON INSPECTIONS
Technically, Tehran's talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency are separate from the discussions with the 5+1 Powers. There is a clear link, however --- if the IAEA can announce that it is satisfied with provisions to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities, then confidence will be boosted for a long-term political deal on enrichment.
That opportunity exists. The IAEA sent a high-level delegation to Tehran on 13 December, and talks resume on 16 January. Those sceptical of any accommodation with Iran continue to hold up the "red flag" of the Parchin military base, which they claim is hosting a high-explosive container to test possible military use of uranium. That is far from the most important issue to be resolved, but if Iran and the IAEA can agree a protocol for inspection of facilities including Parchin, then a way out of the cul-de-sac is possible.
5. KEEP THE FOCUS ON THE NUCLEAR ISSUE
Iranian officials have often presented a settlement over enrichment as part of a wider discussion of political and military issues, notably over the Middle East and Central Asia. In recent months, they have held up Syria and Bahrain as cases to test possible accommodation with the US and Europe.
While those discussions may be a logical extension of any rapprochement over the nuclear issue, they should not be part of the immediate negotiation. The friction between Tehran and the "West" --- indeed, not just the "West" but also powers like Turkey --- has increased sharply over the Syrian crisis. Raising that issue at the next talks is more likely to serve as a platform for posturing by the Iranians about their defense of sovereignty and rights against Western imperialism.