North Korea’s nuclear test should remind the world that what counts in politics is results rather than rhetoric. Especially since the “Axis of Evil” speech of January 2002, the Bush administration has pursued ideology-based policies that have failed in the real world.
The US has not achieved a basic level of success with any one of the members of the Axis: North Korea, Iraq and Iran. But Iran is the odd one out of the three, with a functioning state, an international strategy based on national interest, and a relative degree of internal pluralism.
And yet the opportunity for the United States and the European Union to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program seems to be slipping away. Iran, unlike North Korea, is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which means its atomic facilities are monitored by UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. It also suspended enrichment for three years and allowed for more intrusive IAEA inspections under the treaty’s Additional Protocol.
But Iran’s talks with the EU, started in 2003, have foundered over a basic disagreement. The EU wants Iran to suspend enrichment indefinitely, so as to forestall Iran’s gaining technology for a bomb. Tehran, meanwhile, sees access to enrichment as a “right” guaranteed under the NPT.
The talks that sputtered to a halt in October between Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran’s top security official, should not be the last chance to reach an agreement. Other ways of restricting Iran’s nuclear program—sanctions or US/Israeli military strikes—would be ineffective at best and highly dangerous at worst.
It seems clear both from what has leaked out from the Solana-Larijani talks and from Iran’s written response to the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany) that Tehran offered a compromise: Iran could continue to enrich during negotiations, but afterwards would limit domestic enrichment to the laboratory plant at Natanz. Other enrichment would be carried out in Russia while Natanz would remain under IAEA inspection.
Since the talks broke down, both sides have been digging in. The US and the EU continue to argue Iran should suspend all enrichment. Tehran defends its rights, and we must assume will go ahead with expanding the program beyond laboratory-level enrichment towards industrial-scale.
The outlines of a deal recognizing Iran’s laboratory-level enrichment have been evident for some time, and are acknowledged by many in Europe. But time is something now in short supply, and US and British insistence that Iran suspend all enrichment is becoming self-defeating.
Neither is this a static situation. Opponents of a deal in Tehran, while a minority in the collective leadership, are becoming more vocal and we assume more influential. President Ahmadinejad has used the issue, coupled with vehement criticisms of Israel, to project himself as a leadership figure throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds.
America looks less and less like it is in a position to dictate terms to Iran. Russia and China do not favor sanctions. Iraq is not stable, and there has been a telling growth in Afghanistan of suicide bombings against western targets. In Lebanon, Hizbullah held up the Israelis with a few hundred fighters. No wonder the Iranians think Americans can’t manage all these conflicts and attack them.
But politicians driven by ideology often fail to see realities staring them in the face, and this is what makes the stand-off with Iran so dangerous.
The insistence on ending all enrichment on Iranian soil has not produced the desired result. Hence it is time for unconditional talks aimed at reaching an agreement with Iran that accepts its right to nuclear technology, including a limited enrichment program, while also insisting it comes back into the Additional Protocol and extends its co-operation with the IAEA.
Of course Tehran would claim that as a “victory,” but in this imperfect and volatile world that is a small price to pay for a vital and practical step towards stability.