John Thomson: This way, Mr Bush, you could go out a statesman

A dangerous tit for tat looms as negotiations stall on Iran's refusal to climb down on the nuclear issue, yet the positions of Washington and Tehran are not that far apart. The US president should agree to hold talks without pre-conditions

Share
Related Topics

Tit for tat is a game that tends to get rough and out of hand. So Iranian missile launches last week answering Israeli practice air attacks in June are worrying. There is more to come.

President Bush is widely believed to have assured supporters that he will not leave office without having dealt with Iran. This mean's "teaching Iran a lesson", perhaps shaking the regime. Some US commentators suggest the regime is already shaking and will have to bow to further pressure. Tehran is keen to show that this analysis is wrong and that if attacked its riposte will be swift and devastating.

Iran, being in breach of Security Council resolutions, is on the wrong side of international law. The five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany – the "5-plus-1" – will isolate Iran through further UN resolutions. Some voices may declare a blockade is needed to assert the will of the international community. Iran's response may scare oil consumers and increase the oil revenues, which Tehran can use to bribe people flouting UN sanctions and to subsidise prices for its deprived population.

Israelis, shocked by their failure to win the 34-day war against Hizbollah and worried by the weakness of their government, fear that Iran intends to attack them. This is an irrational fantasy, but has spawned a political reality in giving rise to talk about pre-emptive military action. The visit to Israel last week of Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, could be interpreted as US-Israeli coordination for such an attack. More likely, Mullen warned Israel not to attack – but the White House will not admit this.

Rumours allege that Israeli planes have practised in Iraqi air space and landed at US air bases minutes from Iran. If Tehran believes them, there could be consequences. US claims that Iranian supplies are going to Iraqis who are killing US troops evoke the counter claim that America is supporting dissidents in Iran and (with Britain) sheltering drug-dealing terrorists in Afghanistan.

What began in 2003 as a legitimate attempt to persuade Iran to desist from its hitherto secret enrichment programme has snowballed into a confrontation between the US and Iran embroiling pretty much the entire Middle East, worrying Russia and China and potentially affecting the daily lives of Europeans.

Tit for tat is likely to continue and, unchecked, could lead to wars nobody wants. Is there a way out? Can Europeans do something effective? The answer to both questions is "Yes".

That the problem is no longer just about Iran's nuclear ambitions but extends to the entire region is accepted by both sides. Each has a package proposal covering the whole range of problems. The Iranian proposal was delivered to the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the foreign ministers of the 5-plus-1 on 13 May. Their proposal was handed to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, on 14 June.

These two proposals offer a way forward. Each covers big issues so briefly that it is hard to be sure exactly what they mean; they are more like agenda items than detailed proposals. But they are the better for that.

Mottaki told a few of us over dinner in New York last week that Solana had assured him the Iranian package could be part of the agenda for substantive negotiations between Iran and the 5-plus-1. Obviously, the other part of the agenda should be the package proposed by the 5-plus-1 themselves.

Both proposals include negotiations not only on nuclear matters but also on political, economic and security issues. Each contains some items not in the other. For instance, the Iranians will not object to civil aviation or means of dealing with humanitarian disasters. Nor, presumably, will the 5-plus-1 jib at discussing terrorism, democracy and drugs.

Offers to negotiate do not necessarily imply commitment to reach agreement. Both packages clearly have immediate tactical goals in view. But it would be wrong to suppose they are wholly insincere.

In three hours of discussion, Mottaki convinced me that while there was no change in the basic Iranian position on the nuclear issue, there was a change in tone and intention as regards the general relationship with the West. Iran, I judge, is ready to make some compromise agreements (as yet unspecified) on Middle Eastern issues that worry the West. And on the nuclear issue it is ready to compromise to the extent of putting its enrichment-related facilities under the control of an international consortium – including, for example, France, Germany and the UK – which would then operate a modern, commercially oriented business producing nuclear fuel in Iran for sale globally.

This is not what the 5-plus-1 are asking for, but in my view it is the best that is obtainable, and so long as it remains in force it precludes Iran from making a nuclear weapon. Early discussion of this idea would get the two sides into a negotiation that could expand to cover all the items in the two packages.

However, there is a snag. The 5-plus-1 continue to insist substantive negotiations must await the suspension, for an indefinite period, of the Iranian enrichment programme. In short, negotiations are hostage to a prior climbdown by Iran on the nuclear issue.

This is unlikely. In my view, the change in Iranian tone and intentions is due to increasing confidence that its influence in the Middle East is equal to that of the US. Hence negotiations, it supposes, will be based on mutual respect.

But the snag may be temporary. Senator Barack Obama says that under his administration negotiations could begin without the precondition about suspension. The Iranians are playing for time.

So by the afternoon of 20 January 2009, when the new US president takes office, negotiations may be possible. Meanwhile, there will be much dangerous tit for tat. Europeans should make it clear to their governments that they are running too big a risk for too small a prize. Let negotiations begin without pre-conditions. Now, President Bush, to propose that yourself would be truly statesmanlike.

Sir John Thomson, a former UK Permanent Representative at the UN, is currently a research affiliate at MIT

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer - Cardiff - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits and bonus: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer ...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:TEACHERS REQUIREDWe are...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistant ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Hislop the Younger, by-election polling and all about the olden days

John Rentoul
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to 'adapt and survive'

Nigel Edwards
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?