The surprise about this week's talks in Tehran between Iran and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, is that the European officials should have been surprised that the negotiations had started so well.
There never was - or shouldn't have been - any real doubt that the Iranians were willing to talk on the nuclear issue if the inducements were right. From the beginning, and during the two years of aborted talks before it resumed nuclear enrichment last year, Iran has looked for two things. One has been direct talks with the US. The second has been its insistence on the inalienable right to develop the full nuclear cycle, including uranium enrichment. It was Tehran's failure to make headway on either which doomed the previous round of talks. The US refused all direct discussions, preferring to continue to threaten Iran with regime change, as well as military action. At the same time, the Europeans, in the form of a triad of the UK, Germany and France, offered bits of assistance and trade benefits, but nothing on the substantive issue of enrichment.
If talks have restarted, it has been because of movement on both impediments. The US has agreed to direct talks if Iran should show readiness to give up enrichment. The package developed by the Security Council members and presented by Solana in Tehran on Tuesday, although still secret, does appear to offer some accommodation on nuclear technology.
In any normal diplomatic negotiation, one would say: "great, we've got the basis of a settlement here"; agreement, it should be said, that could remove the greatest cause of international concern of the moment and end a generation of mutual antagonism between the US and Iran. And yet, and yet. The tone has certainly changed, on both sides. But the crucial problem remains. On one side, you have a regional power in the Middle East, determined to exercise its full right to nuclear technology, including the bits that could give it the potential to produce its own nuclear weaponry. On the other side, you have the US and its European allies determined to stop it doing just that.
It's a matter of trust. Iran insists it has no ambitions to nuclear weaponry. The US and Europe don't believe it. The US says it is solely concerned with preventing nuclear proliferation, Tehran suspects it of wanting to force regime change, and is using this as an excuse to do so.
The trouble is that nothing that either side has done so far removes those mutual suspicions. If Bush has made a U-turn towards a more diplomatic approach, as some hope, it is not because of Condoleezza Rice's presence, European pressure or a sudden switch from neo-con confrontationalism to a new, more consensual foreign policy.
It is simply because, in confronting Iran and driving towards early UN sanctions, Washington hit the buffers of a Russia and China that wouldn't go along with such a course, and allies that wouldn't countenance any form of military action. If the US continued in refusing direct talks, and implicitly threatening air strikes, it stood to having its bluff called by an Iranian regime which was refusing to budge. It had to change tack or risk being exposed as a beakless eagle.
In the same way, Iran had to change course from its absolute refusal to negotiate for fear of losing the support of China and Russia. Neither side has budged on the fundamentals. Washington still says it won't talk to Tehran until it indicates its willingness to give up enrichment. Tehran declares this is non-negotiable. Any hope of a speedy settlement - Condoleezza's warning that Iran has "weeks rather than months" to come to terms - seem doomed. Iranians are past masters at spinning out negotiations and do not take kindly to imposed deadlines.
In the meantime, the hardliners on both sides will continue to snipe away. For the Vice President, Dick Cheney, and the neo-cons in Washington, any sign of procrastination on the Iranians' part will be treated as an indication Tehran is playing for time while it accelerates its secret nuclear plans. In Tehran, Washington's continued insistence on deadlines and preconditions for talks will be greeted as proof that America is really determined on the military option, to protect Israel and force regime change. Hence all the more reason to push ahead with the nuclear programme.
A solution is still feasible. It's possible to foresee a final agreement that allows Iran the right to develop technology, but not the practice that could produce weapons-grade uranium along with a treaty that would end sanctions and set relations with America on a new course. But for this to happen, all sides need to start showing trust. The US, most importantly, has to engage with Iran as a regional power, with interests and a contribution of its own, not just as an alien regime which should be brought down.
The Europeans need to move out of a position of playing soft cop to America's hard cop to provide an independent voice in the proceedings. And, finally, the Iranian regime has to open itself to outside influences, rather than treating them as threats which could bring about unwanted change within.
If these seem matters of attitude rather than points of negotiation, that is because it is in the underlying assumptions about each other that the real problems between Iran and the US, along with Europe, lie. Unless they change, all the talk in the world won't prevent this confrontation from sliding back to the position of simmering hostility and veiled threats, which we've only just started to clamber out of.Reuse content