A clear and present solution

In 2003 Iran was ready to let the world inside the likes of its Bushehr reactor, here captured by satellite in 2002, but US rhetoric stymied the deal
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Tensions between Iran and the world powers should prompt reconsideration of Iran’s 2003 letter to the United States proposing a ‘grand bargain’.  Drafted by Sadegh Kharrazi, then ambassador to France, it had been discussed by a small group including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the rahbar (‘leader’).

Iran offered intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities, recognition of Israel within pre-1967 borders on the terms of the 2002 Beirut declaration of the Arab League, and co-operation against al-Qaeda. In return, Tehran wanted an end to sanctions and US interference in Iran’s internal politics, respect for its rights to access nuclear technology, and recognition of its regional security interests. But the proposal died, reportedly because Dick Cheney, the vice-president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, insisted the US did not “talk to evil”. Some Bush administration officials later admitted this had been a mistake, but the designation of Iran as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’ — reflecting a latter-day crusade rather than earthly diplomatic calculations — lingered and has never disappeared.

Washington stood aside from the 2003-2007 talks between Iran and the European Union, when Iran suspended uranium enrichment, accepted intrusive inspections under the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and suggested it would accept limits on its nuclear programme beyond NPT obligations.

Much of the frustration of those talks stemmed from the feeling on both sides that the real interlocutor was absent. In September 2004, Hossein Mousavian, the Iranian negotiator, told me in Tehran that he did not think the Europeans could act independently of Washington, but in a comment betraying uncertainty suggested their actions were “somehow co-ordinated”.

Despite US-Iranian co-operation over Afghanistan and Iraq there was, and remains, significant opposition to dialogue in both Washington and Tehran, and of course in Israel. This was evident as Barack Obama, running for the presidency in 2008, committed himself to “engagement”. Opponents of talks were then enthused by the unrest and harsh government response after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election. But at the same time, there were always voices more versed in hard-headed diplomacy than notions of evil. In 2007, amid an outbreak of war rhetoric in Washington, the US intelligence services produced a National Intelligence Estimate reporting Iran had halted research into nuclear weapons. The February 14 article from Dennis Ross — until last November a senior advisor to the Obama administration — in The New York Times, ‘Iran Is Ready to Talk’, shows a similar pragmatism. The leadership in Tehran well know who Ross is, and may judge that the piece was run past Obama before it appeared in print. With impeccable pro-Israeli credentials as an affiliate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Ross was ideal to suggest that a deal might see Iran continuing some uranium enrichment. Although some European diplomats envisaged this during the 2004-2007 talks, they did not say so publicly. For the US to offer such a concession now could be a crucial step toward agreement, as it could enable Iran to claim victory with its “rights” to nuclear technology acknowledged. Can such a deal be delivered? 

In February, Mousavian wrote for Bloomberg that talks from 2003 until 2009 (that’s with the EU and then with the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) proved unrealistic “largely because they did not provide face-saving mechanisms for either party”. A solution must recognize “bottom lines”, he added. “For Iran, this means the ability to produce reliable civilian nuclear energy, as it is entitled to do under the non-proliferation treaty. For the US and Europe, it means never having Iran develop nuclear weapons or a short-notice breakout capability.” 

Ross and Mousavian, then, have outlined the basis for an agreement under which Iran would gain recognition to its right to a nuclear program in return for accepting limits on the program, perhaps in the number of centrifuges used, and intrusive inspections. That’s the realpolitik. Meanwhile, the devil lurks not just in the details but amid those on both sides who still think in terms of victory over evil.

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.