Talking in Istanbul is the World’s Best Option

Granting Iran the right to enrich its own uranium is the only possible outcome of successful negotiations, says Daniel DePetris.

Representatives of the United Nations Security Council are giving nuclear negotiations with Iran another try in Turkey this weekend with past failures of diplomacy lingering in the back of their minds.

As usual, the topics up for discussion at the Istanbul talks are unclear. Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States want to grill the Iranians on their nuclear progress. Iran remains far more interested in expanding the scope of the discussions to other issues however, including global nuclear security, America’s future involvement in Iraq and the growing instability inside Afghanistan. It’s doubtful that Washington and its European allies will agree to such a proposal, since time spent on anything other than nuclear enrichment is time lost on forging a deal.

There is no reason to believe that a compromise on Iran’s nuclear program can be reached in such a short period of time anyway. The international community and Tehran have been at this table before, first in October 2009 when a nuclear fuel swap proposition collapsed and again late last year, when the negotiations produced more symbolic handshakes than documents. Although Iranian delegate Abolfazl Zohrevand has stated early on that “compared to the Geneva talks, the negotiations in Istanbul are being held in a more positive way,” the beliefs of the two sides are still extremely far apart. If the Security Council and Iran hold their same positions without refusing to budge, who is to say that this weekend’s roundtable will be any different from the last?

There is a way to salvage the talks, but that would force the Security Council to agree on a core Iranian grievance: allowing Tehran to produce its own nuclear fuel.

Anything short of this will produce more frustration of the same magnitude felt during past negotiations. Hammering Iran over the last five years in the hopes of achieving an unrealistic demand (termination of uranium enrichment) has proved to be an impossible endeavor. The “same old” pressure has also given Iran a viable excuse not to cooperate with the international community in other areas. If a neighbor were asking you to stop doing something that everyone else has been doing for years, you would be skeptical to talk to him or her too. Iran portrays the United States and Europe as bad neighbors and it will take the collective power of the United Nations and the United States to gradually eliminate this perception.

Instead of criticizing Iran on its refusal to stop enriching uranium (something that all segments of Iranian society support), the United States would find it helpful to drop the demand entirely. This is a position that prominent scholars, academics and policymakers have made in the past, and it’s gaining in support as the days wear on.

All nations have the right to enrich their own uranium for purely peaceful purposes, which is guaranteed in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The UN needs to recognize this right for Iran as it does for every other country. Given Iran’s history of subversion and terrorism, this is a difficult thing to do though. But it may be the only alternative that the UN has, short of another round of economic sanctions or a preemptive strike that would instigate another war in the Middle East.

The right to enrich uranium should be granted to the Iranians, in exchange for a rigorous international inspections regime. That is a basic compromise everyone can live with.