Cold War Lessons Can Help Disarm Iran


12th April 2012

Saturday’s talks in Istanbul between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany are testimony to the power of diplomacy backed by the threat of force. Just as a creative diplomatic initiative is required to prevent a calamitous conflict, no one should doubt that Tehran is coming to the table reluctantly, and under extreme duress. Sanctions of unprecedented breadth and depth are raising the cost of Tehran’s defiance of the Security Council’s demands.

Barack Obama has brought the case for diplomacy into the open, speaking powerfully against a “rush to war”. At the same time, he has made clear the conditions in which war becomes inevitable. If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, America will strike. This clarity about red lines and the consequences if they are breached has been sorely missing. What matters now is that negotiations are seized with purpose and imagination, and are not allowed to falter at the first sign of difficulty.

We know that Iran will be engaging with the world at a time of turbulence and change within the regime. In a striking sign that Ayatollah Khamenei and those around him are forgetting the lesson of the Shah (and, much later, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt), the supreme leader is asserting power as the main pillar of the state, while rival centres of influence are weakened. In the long term, this will make the regime more vulnerable to change from below. In the immediate future it may make Iran a more disciplined negotiating partner.

The so-called P5+1 group has one task before all others: make credible what fragile agreement exists among them to create a unity of purpose that leaves Iran without alternatives for support or security. To do so it must draw on the cold war model for negotiations between sworn enemies. This suggests there are five components essential to progress.

First, a long-term vision. The deal on the table for Iran needs to be clear. On the one hand Iran must show that its nuclear programme has no military dimension. This is challenging given its history of evasion. On the other hand, the international community must agree that an Iran in compliance with the non-proliferation treaty has a right to civilian nuclear power.

Second, a transparent verification regime that creates confidence in the management of Iran’s existing stocks of enriched uranium. The fate of the stocks of 20 per cent and 3-5 per cent enriched uranium is secondary to international confidence in Iran’s commitments. Without that confidence, there would be little assurance Iran would not restart enrichment secretly elsewhere.

Third, sanctions. Russia has said Iran should be rewarded step by step for good behaviour: as Tehran acts on international concerns, sanctions should be lifted. The danger is clear: as sanctions are lifted, Iran reverses its commitments and reverts to its proscribed activities. This is all the more reason why the deal on offer and its verification mechanisms have to be clear. Then how and when to lift sanctions becomes a transparent process, as in the case of Myanmar.

Fourth, the regional context. Iran sees enemies in its neighbourhood – increasingly so given the weakness of the Syrian regime. As long as this is so, it will show extreme caution, if not hostility. The international community needs to understand the regional dynamics. Meanwhile, the Gulf states must be willing to acknowledge Iran’s legitimate interests and stop blaming Tehran for what are often self-inflicted wounds (in Bahrain, for example).

Finally, given the antagonism between the US and Iran, there is no substitute for American leadership. The US faces special pressures in an election year, but it holds the trump card. Deep in the Iranian psyche is a love-hate relationship with America and its power. Mr Obama is correct in his continuing attempts to use this leverage. Clarity about US intentions and commitments are key to a strategic calculus in Tehran that makes a deal possible.

Demanding complete certainties in the strategic competition of states is folly. Two generations of statesmen have brought the world remarkable stability – and avoided nuclear war – by choosing strategic patience and security agreements over a quest for total domination. No one is served by the illusion that security can now be achieved any differently.


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    President, Carnegie Endowment
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    Chairman, BP
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