Berlin – For two weeks, it looked like the regime in Iran had finally gotten the message that, if it continues to pursue its nuclear program, serious military confrontation is likely to result. Indeed, there were interesting – and previously unheard of – statements and signals from Teheran that suggested an increased willingness to start negotiating about Iran’s nuclear program and regional security issues.
Berlin – For two weeks, it looked like the regime in Iran had finally gotten the message that, if it continues to pursue its nuclear program, serious military confrontation is likely to result. Indeed, there were interesting – and previously unheard of – statements and signals from Teheran that suggested an increased willingness to start negotiating about Iran’s nuclear program and regional security issues. And America’s decision to send Undersecretary of State William Burns to a meeting with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator suggests that those signals are being taken seriously.
But the recent military muscle-flexing with rocket tests and the rejection of a compromise by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and his foreign minister show that the country’s leadership is seriously divided over the strategic line that Iran should pursue.
Iran’s leadership still harbors the misconception that Israeli threats against its nuclear facilities are an expression of the domestic difficulties of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government. This is plainly wrong. Olmert’s government has serious problems, but they are not the reason that the situation between Israel and Iran is coming to a head.
On the contrary, a cross-party consensus exists in Israel concerning Iran’s possible nuclear armament and regional hegemony. All sides agree that, unless there is a diplomatic solution, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons must be prevented in good time and by any means necessary. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries share this view, albeit behind closed doors.
If Iran adopts a more realistic approach, there is real hope for a diplomatic solution. The most recent offer of the 5+1 group (the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany) was well received in Teheran. In addition to far-reaching political and economic cooperation, the offer promises cooperation on nuclear matters, including the construction and supply of the newest light-water reactors in Iran, as well as Iranian access to nuclear research and development – provided that there is a negotiated settlement.
But what was really new is that Iran also responded positively to the procedure proposed by the 5+1 group. In the pre-negotiation phase, this means that Iran would agree not to install any new centrifuges, necessary for increasing the volume of uranium being enriched, while the 5+1 group would refrain from calling for new sanctions in the Security Council.
Once negotiations start, Iran would, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, suspend its uranium enrichment and all related activities for six months – something that the Iranian government refused even to discuss in the last four years. For its part, the Security Council would suspend all its deliberations related to the Iranian nuclear program.
The aim of these negotiations is a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the 5+1 group that would resolve both the nuclear conflict and address regional security issues (Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan) while opening up extensive international and regional cooperation.
There were also signals emanating from Iran that, having , having mastered uranium enrichment technology, the authorities could envisage continuing enrichment in a third country in a joint consortium with the West. A similar proposal made by Russia was unceremoniously dismissed only a short time ago.
Moreover, while there is no willingness to accept Israeli hegemony, the tone vis-à-vis Israel is beginning to change. Ahmadinejad’s vile anti-Semitism has of late been indirectly, but fairly openly, criticized by one of the closest confidants of Iran’s supreme religious leader, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. Iranian spokesmen also indicate that there is an official awareness of Israel’s importance for a comprehensive regional solution, and that doing business with Israel is no longer inconceivable.
One hasn’t heard this sort of language in all the years since Ahmadinejad came to power. But is Iran really serious? Or are these simply the old stonewalling tactics? Does the government just want to buy time once more, now to make it through the America’s presidential elections? Given the public contradictions in the Iranian leadership’s behavior, is there a reliable Iranian position, and, if so, who represents it? These crucial questions can only be answered by the practical test of negotiations, this time with direct American participation.
If Iran is serious, the result may be nothing less than the long awaited “Grand Bargain” – a regional reconciliation of interests between Iran, on one side, and America, Europe, and the region’s US allies on the other.
But if Iran is playing for time, its behavior is shortsighted and foolish. The conflict, and thus the danger of a military confrontation, will not disappear under a new US administration. On the contrary, should the negotiations fail, the confrontation will resurface in short order, and be far more dangerous.
Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama will take a softer stance than the current American administration on the question of Iran’s regional hegemony and its nuclear program. Indeed, if a diplomatic solution fails, they are more likely to react more forcefully. It is therefore imperative that diplomacy, which looks possible at the moment, be given a chance.
If the top leadership in Teheran has realized that it makes a great deal more sense, and is more in keeping with Iran’s interests, to consolidate the successes of its foreign policy in the last few years, and to strengthen the regime, rather than risk everything in a military showdown with unforeseeable consequences, then there is a real chance for a diplomatic solution. If not, the region will be plunged into a hot confrontation.
There’s wisdom, which Iran’s leaders should heed, in the old adage that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 to 2005, led Germany’s Green Party for nearly 20 years.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2008.