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Defusing Iran

BERLIN – On February 18, crucial negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program began in Vienna between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1). The alternative to the talks is a further nuclear buildup by Iran, followed by additional international sanctions and, eventually, another war in the Middle East, which no one believes can resolve the problem. So, can a comprehensive agreement that respects Iran’s right to civilian nuclear energy, while allaying the international community’s fears of weaponization, be achieved?

The interim agreement reached last November in Geneva reflected the West’s de facto acceptance that Iran is entitled to carry out limited low-grade uranium enrichment within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The West released about $7 billion of frozen Iranian funds and relaxed some sanctions (in particular, on crude oil and auto parts), while Iran agreed to a quasi-freeze of its nuclear program. That created the basis for a lasting agreement. But realizing that potential will be difficult.

First and foremost, a mountain of mutual distrust will need to be overcome. The West and Israel do not believe that Iran’s nuclear program is meant to serve merely civilian aims. Otherwise, why would Iran invest billions of dollars in a program that is almost tailor-made for military purposes, including long-distance delivery systems?

The Iranian leadership, for its part, remains convinced that the United States still seeks to bring about regime change. From Iran’s perspective, accepting an American hand extended in a spirit of conciliation could turn it into a fist.