India and BRICS can leverage their influence on the West and help in the process of arriving at a negotiated settlement with Tehran.
The outcome of nuclear talks in Istanbul on April 14 justifies a diplomatic cheer. For the first time in years the parties — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union, Russia, China and Iran — set no preconditions for engaging. The atmosphere was cordial. The parties agreed to embark on a sustained step-by-step process of reciprocal concessions to arrive at a negotiated settlement. Crucially, the parties recognised that the Nuclear No-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) offers a basis for a peaceful outcome — a principle that has eluded the West ever since it set out to deny Iran a uranium enrichment capability in the belief that this would be used to produce nuclear weapons.
Several factors combined to make all this possible. Public opinion polls suggest little U.S. support for an attack on Iran to knock out its nuclear plants. The White House is confident that Iran is not making nuclear weapons and that any decision to start making them would be detected rapidly. Iran has an incentive to negotiate the lifting of sanctions as long as it is not required to give up its NPT right to enrich or to accept some other double standard.
Under the NPT, in return for recognising Iran's rights and lifting sanctions, the West would expect Iran to refrain from diverting nuclear material to any military use, to grant all necessary access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and to volunteer measures that can allay the concerns which the secret nature of Iran's early enrichment development programme aroused.
All this looks feasible within the process to which Iran and the West now appear committed. But the scope for that process to founder on distrust and misunderstanding must not be underestimated. Iran and the U.S. have hurt and disappointed each other so often in the last 33 years that their mutual trust deficit is huge. Westerners are perplexed by aspects of Iranian culture and baffled by the governance structures in place since 1979. When a state becomes hard to fathom, worst-case assumptions thrive — a feature of East/West relations during the Cold War.
Equally daunting are some wider political realities.
Since 1992, both leading Israeli parties have strained to convince Washington of Israel's value as a U.S. ally in a post-Cold War Middle East. For these Israelis, Iran's nuclear programme has been a gift from heaven — just what's needed to persuade the Americans that Iran is an evil state bent on destroying Israel, and that Iran's programme, if left unchecked, will precipitate nuclear proliferation in an unstable region. U.S. neoconservatives, in thrall to dreams of reshaping the Middle East, have provided a ready echo-chamber for these (highly questionable) propositions. These constituencies, Israeli and American, have no interest in seeing the Iranian nuclear case normalised through an NPT deal.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, though it appears to have refrained from poisoning the wells of American opinion, has been hinting that it will ignore its NPT obligations if Iran, seen as an arch-rival, is left in possession of enrichment plants. Ever since the NPT opened for signature (1968), U.S. officials have been troubled that the treaty allows all parties access to technologies that can serve both civil and military purposes. The White House appears to have brought under control an itch to close this loophole (at the expense of a core NPT bargain); but will that last? Negotiators will also have to guard against a western tendency to self-righteousness. It would be counterproductive to make Iran's negotiators, who crave respect and justice, feel like criminal suspects engaged in plea-bargaining, just because Iran has defied several highly-politicised U.N. resolutions and committed nuclear safeguards violations years ago...
A part for India
For their part, the Iranians are over-inclined to retaliate when keeping a stiff upper lip would be wiser. Recently, for instance, the trashing of the British embassy in Tehran, was an act of retaliation unlikely to dispose the British government to make concessions. Can Iran resist the urge to retaliate if some provocation is contrived by those who want negotiations to fail?
Such factors suggest a possible role for India and its BRICS partners. India could use its influence in Western capitals to urge patience and the turning of deaf ears to special pleading from Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could stress the unacceptability of military action unless authorised by the Security Council, both on legal grounds and because of its probable consequences for Indian living standards. It could draw on 2,500 years of cultural affinity to offer advice on Iranian sensibilities: the dos and don'ts that matter in a negotiation.
To counterpoint the tunes composed by the West's Middle East allies, the BRICS are qualified to point out that Iran's nuclear programme is a symbol of a geostrategic shift — Iran is slowly returning to the ranks of Asia's greater powers — and that wisdom lies in accommodating what can hardly be prevented without affecting the lives of billions.
This op-ed has been modified specifically for The Hindu. The original can be found at the website for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations (www.gatewayhouse.in).
(Ambassador Peter Jenkins is a former British diplomat who worked on the Iranian nuclear issue when Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna — 2001-06.)