After an eight month hiatus, Iranian representatives and diplomats from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany came together on Monday in Kazakhstan to begin another round of negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.
As in previous talks, Iran was expected to hold true to its belief that it is entitled to a peaceful uranium enrichment program like every other nation that has signed the Nonproliferation Treaty. Absent serious concessions from especially the Europeans and the United States, the Iranians could very well cut the negotiations short altogether.
The latest discussions could hardly have come at a more difficult time. Despite the drumbeat of pressure that the Iranian government is feeling economically due to a tough global sanctions regime, the population remains generally supportive of the government’s negotiating strategy. A solid 63 percent of Iranians surveyed by Gallup wants the government to continue to build up the nuclear program, even if it results in a greater amount of economic distress. Those numbers give the leaders of the Islamic republic an incentive to stick with their present approach, absent a comprehensive offer from the great powers they can’t refuse.
President Barack Obama has stressed that diplomacy with the Iranians is the best option to solve the nuclear impasse. Yet in many respects, his administration finds itself alone in promoting talks with the country. The vast majority of American lawmakers seems less interested in resolving the conflict peacefully if the Iranians are allowed to keep their indigenous uranium enrichment program.
Indeed, being uncompromising and bashing Iran has been a reliable way for American politicians to gain the respect of their peers and their voters. Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel’s delayed confirmation by the Senate to the position of secretary of defense showed just how dangerous it has become in Washington DC to tow a moderate line on the issue. He was peppered with questions from senators during his confirmation hearing about his devotion to bombing Tehran in the event it further stalls talks and becomes a nuclear power.
If the world’s major powers have any chance of keeping the negotiating process alive after the first few days, they need to demonstrate a degree of flexibility and compromise that has so far been elusive. Politicians in Washington may not like it but this will have to include a willingness by the six countries to address Iran’s demands on economic sanctions relief. Unless at least some of the sanctions are loosened in exchange for an equivalent commitment from Tehran, Iran’s representatives will have every reason to walk away from the table. The other parties need not give up on their principles but do have to offer the Iranians enough to convince them that the diplomatic option is worth the months of frustration and headaches that would inevitably be involved.
If the Iranians refuse such an offer of compromise, the onus will be on them to explain to their own population and the rest of the world why they chose to reject a peaceful solution to the crisis.