The sharp shift in stance by the U.S. and its allies towards the Iranian nuclear posture can be attributed to the Obama administration’s better appreciation of the “big picture” that obtains in the region.

Contrary to the prognosis of failure made by leading hawks in Israel, Europe and the United States, Iran’s first round of talks with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany has got off to a promising start. Senior officials from Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany held intensive discussions in a secluded villa overlooking the placid Lake Geneva on October 1.

Surprisingly, the day-long dialogue yielded substantial results, which set the wheels of diplomacy moving rapidly in several capitals, including Vienna, headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Within two days of the talks in Geneva, Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the IAEA, which monitors whether countries harnessing atomic energy go by the book, arrived in Tehran.

Dr. ElBaradei’s mission included preparations for an early inspection of Iran’s second uranium enrichment facility, located inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom.

The urgency of his arrival is tied to Iran’s declaration in Geneva that it was ready to open this facility to U.N. inspectors within two weeks. Iran maintains that it took the step to dispel the notion that its second plant, named Fordo, was in any way connected to a covert nuclear weapons programme. His talks in Tehran resulted in an agreement by the two sides to facilitate inspection by IAEA experts of the Fordo site on October 25.

Cautiously optimistic

The second element of the IAEA chief’s mission was to pursue Iran’s stunning offer in Geneva that, in principle, it is ready to send abroad for further enrichment most of its existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Iran has enriched more than a tonne of uranium to a 3.5 to 5 per cent level. It is now ready to transfer most of this material to Russia for enrichment to a level between 19 and 20 per cent. Russia, in turn, will send it to France for conversion into metal fuel rods. It will finally return to Iran, in this form, for use in a small facility in Tehran that makes isotopes for medical use. In a cautiously optimistic assessment of the situation resulting from the Geneva conference and his talks with the Iranians, Dr. ElBaradei said: “I see that we are at a critical moment. I see that we are shifting from confrontation to transparency and cooperation.” Further discussions are scheduled for October 19.

The Iranian move to transfer abroad its stocks of low-enriched uranium for fuel fabrication is potentially path-breaking. It would mean that Iran, after the shipment leaves its shores, would no longer have the material to produce atomic weapons. By implication, this should ground moves to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, avidly proposed by hawks in the U.S. and Israel, citing that Iran had a big enough stockpile for making at least one nuclear warhead.

The Iranians now have to do two things which could help to permanently ward off the threat of air strikes on their atomic infrastructure. First, they have to work on a stable arrangement to ship abroad regularly low-enriched uranium produced in the IAEA-monitored facility in Natanz. This will ensure that Iran, now as well as in future, is unable to accumulate a uranium stockpile that is large enough for conversion into weapons. Second, Iran may have to expand its cooperation with the IAEA, to reassure friends and foes alike, that it does not run secret facilities which produce material for weapons. For this purpose, its signature to the Additional Protocol, which would allow the IAEA to inspect at short notice its suspect facilities, could go a long way in boosting international confidence in its claim that its nuclear programme has a peaceful orientation.

The Geneva talks have taken off to a good start because both sides abandoned the sterile approach of past negotiations, which were leading to more sanctions and hostility and possibly war.Iranian officials, including their delegation head in Geneva, Saeed Jalili, emphasised that the global powers, during discussions, did not exhort Tehran to give up its on-going uranium enrichment programme. This marked a significant departure in the western position from the Bush era, during which three rounds of sanctions were imposed on Iran, which refused to suspend enrichment in Natanz, citing its legal rights to enrich as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Recent foreign minister-level talks between the Americans and the the Russians in Moscow have further reduced the chances of fresh sanctions. The sharp shift in stance by the Americans and their allies towards the Iranian nuclear posture can be attributed to the Obama administration’s better appreciation of the “big picture” obtaining in the region.

Unlike sections of the Bush administration, especially the former Vice-President, Dick Cheney’s office, the Obama administration appears to have concluded that air strikes against Iran, even by Israel, can lead to catastrophic consequences. Hard-headed realists in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the U.S. security establishment realise that air strikes would generate a dynamic that would eventually draw American forces into a much larger and difficult-to-extricate conflagration. For instance, Israeli air strikes would, inevitably, result in a swift retaliation by Tehran, which could threaten the flow of oil from the Strait of Hormuz. Given the sledgehammer impact of this move on an ailing international economy, the U.S. navy would have to step into the conflict, starting a spiral which would make it inevitable to induct into Iran American ground troops, who already have their hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike in the initial stages of the Iraq war where American forces were not militarily preoccupied in the region, air strikes against Iran can draw the U.S. into a protracted, hard-to-win war. An exit from this situation will then be possible only by either a tacit admission of defeat or bringing into play a horrific nuclear weapons dimension; a scenario which the U.S. establishment would try its best to avoid. Not surprisingly, Defence Secretary Robert Gates has been consistent in downplaying military action against Iran, to promote American security objectives in the oil-rich region.

The U.S. administration also better appreciates the fact that Iranian cooperation will be pivotal to extricate American troops from Iraq and to the success of Washington’s troubled venture in Afghanistan. Iranian influence runs deep among Iraq’s Shia militias, who have the power to cause instability which is enough to force American overstay in Iraq. Iran is also the key power broker for stability in Lebanon, on account of its influence over the Hizbollah militia.

Besides, an Iranian-Syrian nexus exercises unrivalled influence over the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza, making Iran’s eventual involvement in resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute indispensable.

While a good start has been made in Geneva, sustaining the momentum for a lasting rapprochement between Iran and the global powers will not be easy. Powerful forces in the region are bound to lose out, and will retaliate, if tensions between Iran and the West begin to ease, and the regional geopolitical order becomes more accommodative of Iran as West Asia’ s pivotal power. Israel, which has been designated since its inception as America’s chief ally in the region, will be badly hurt in case the promise of Iran’s budding détente with the global powers cements.

Tel Aviv is well aware that Iran will press the Americans hard to bring the Israeli nuclear programme within the ambit of discussions as a quid pro quo for its cooperation on the nuclear issue. Mr. Jalili has already said Tehran wishes to cooperate with Washington on global disarmament — a position that squarely targets Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons stockpile. Once the threat of war disappears and a comprehensive dialogue begins, it will be logical also to expect that Iran will link its help to restrain Hizbollah and Hamas to real concessions by Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians.

A re-accommodation of a resurgent Iran as a leading player in the regional pecking order is unlikely to please two regional heavyweights — Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Some commentators in the smaller Persian Gulf countries are dismayed at the prospect of a possible strategic partnership emerging between Iran and the U.S. It reminds them of the unhappy situation that prevailed earlier, when their profile in the region was badly undermined as Washington had the Shah of Iran on its side as its premier ally.

With a possible turnaround in Iran’s relationship with the U.S. showing faint but definite signs of life, it is expected that the powerful lobbies in the U.S. from Israel and Saudi Arabia will be working overtime to weed out the green-shoots of hope that have sprouted from the Geneva talks. The coming weeks will test whether in Tehran and especially in Washington, the political will to push for peace prevails over powerful forces in the western media, academia, business and intelligence communities, which will do their best to prevent a lasting peace process emerging from the Geneva talks.

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