It is still a thrill an hour in Washington. Do we have a government? Do we pay our bills? Two days of talks in Geneva this week will prove just as big. They begin Tuesday, the topic is Iran, and they are a must-see.
Can the major powers shape a deal with Iran that defuses the knife’s-edge tensions prompted by the Islamic republic’s nuclear program? Can the Obama administration and its allies open a cooperative relationship with the Iranians, making possible a reimagined, post-crisis Middle East?
The Geneva gathering will give us a first glimpse at answers.
Iran promises a three-step plan full of hard facts and specific intentions, according to a Wall Street Journal report. This is a good opener, given the Western nations’ incessant demands for “concrete actions” since Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s reformist president, took office in June.
But the stakes in Geneva are too consequential for a fools-rush-in approach intended to satisfy hawkish elements on either side. I stand with Robert Einhorn at the Brookings Institution. “The upcoming talks,” he writes “will be more productive if they produce an informal exploration of what is possible rather than the introduction of detailed formal proposals.”
What is possible encompasses a lot. But the difference between success and failure will depend on one thing: how much each side commits itself to international law. It is law, not preference that will prove the fulcrum of this effort.
Here is how this columnist sees the road ahead:
THE NUCLEAR QUESTION
A successful diplomatic effort will end with a nuclear-capable Iran that enjoys the economic benefits of nuclear power but possesses no nuclear weapons.
This is the only outcome that will prove stable and sustainable because the nuclear question involves Iran’s sovereignty, equality, and security. To deprive it of any internationally recognized right would be to write another Treaty of Versailles, so assuring the festering and spread of the resentment and nationalist bile that are the stock in trade of Iran’s conservative, anti–Western hawks.
Accepting a nuclear-capable Iran will be the West’s biggest step. It will require measures of confidence, trust, and transparency Washington has so far considered impossible to achieve. Rouhani has signaled clearly that he wants to deliver the goods without depriving Iranians of legitimate prerogatives.
The benefits of this approach will be several. It will produce a durable settlement that governs a nuclear energy program no more worrisome than Japan’s or Korea’s (which are advanced), or Vietnam’s, Turkey’s, Jordan’s, or Saudi Arabia’s (which are just beginning).
The U.S. will enjoy a cooperative relationship with a Middle Eastern nation that is destined to accumulate regional influence no matter who slices the cake. Mutual interests can be identified on questions such as Syria and armed insurgencies active across the region.
The grimmer outcome is all too accessible. Any attempt to limits Iran’s rights on the nuclear side will produce a failed engagement—and will do so swiftly. Those facing Iranian negotiators must stay clear of the extreme demands long advocated by numerous members of Congress and, not incidentally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These include any requirement that Iran stop all enrichment and export what enriched uranium it already possesses.
The costs of the mistaken route would be high. The crisis environment now prevailing in the Middle East will worsen. Iranians will have their faces rubbed in their pariah status, the economy will collapse under the weight of sanctions, and the West will effectively re-arm the worst elements on the domestic scene. Call this the “late–Weimar Syndrome.”
What will those at the table in Geneva this week have in their attaché cases? Here are the probable opening positions:
• Iran. The plan reported last week is generous in its concessions. All production of nuclear fuel close to weapons grade will cease. Quantities of enriched uranium will be limited. Verification will be provided. A timetable will be set. Tehran may shut its underground enrichment plant near Qom.
In exchange, Iran may ask for sanctions to be lifted immediately as a goodwill gesture. This will prove a non-starter, but Tehran is likely to use it as a bargaining device. On the other hand, there will be no flexibility whatever as to Iran’s “right to enrich the soil,” as ISNA, the semi-official news agency, put it Saturday, and its right to keep what enriched fuel it has. These are deal-breakers.
“We will negotiate about the volume, levels, and the methods of enrichment,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said Sunday. “But shipping out enriched material is a red line for Iran.”
There it is. Adhering to the law cuts both ways.