John Thomson: Time is short, but a deal can be done

The West must deal directly with the Supreme Leader to convince him that Iran's 30-year-old regime needs no nuclear weapons

Related Topics

Is the stand-off between Iran and the West critical? Yes. Are we at a make-or-break point? Probably. Is Britain relevant? Questionably.

Britain and the other Europeans were important when we were hanging on to George Bush's coat-tails to prevent him from attacking Iran (or from getting a nuclear weapon). But we followed the US line with such enthusiasm that, now that Obama has replaced Bush, we find ourselves, together with France, to the right of Washington; strange for a Labour government.

The five-plus-one (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are about to hold high-level policy discussions. The Anglo-French political directors will continue, it appears, to insist on "suspension", meaning Iran halts its nuclear programme in exchange for the five-plus-one ceasing to ratchet up sanctions. Obama has dropped "suspension" as a condition for negotiations, doubting that it can stop Iran seeking nuclear weapons. Were we to persuade the new US team to stick with "suspension", we might well wreck the best chance of a negotiated settlement. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is congenitally anti-American. It will not take much to convince him that talk of change is a smokescreen. Once done, it will be hard to undo.

Time, as the five-plus-one privately admit, is against us. So are the facts. We have slipped into denying reality. The Iranians, as they have repeatedly said, are not going to "suspend". Worse, Iran has "mastered" the technology of centrifuge enrichment, something we and the Israelis used to describe as our "red line". We pretend that Iran has not already produced enough low-enriched uranium to make one bomb were they to enrich it further to "weapons grade". Russia and China refuse to support tough sanctions. Iran has seen off unanimous Security Council resolutions. In short, our policy has failed and, if we persist with it, the failure will grow.

Is there an alternative that will prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons? Yes, and Britain, hitherto so often an object of Iranian suspicion, could be the catalyst to make it work. Back in 2006, we insisted that the US join the negotiations, basically because we understood that there had to be an accommodation between the two main protagonists. Now we must promote that accommodation by facilitating US-Iranian talks. We should open a line to the Supreme Leader – we know how to do that – and say that if he is serious about resolving the crisis in a mutually acceptable way, so are we. We should reassure him that we do not seek the end of his regime – 30 years after it began is as good a time as any to do so – and acknowledge that there will be senior people who will shun any accommodation; we should aim at a Security Council resolution blessing, whatever mutually acceptable accommodation is reached, raising sanctions and sending the nuclear issue back from the Council to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for continued monitoring.

The nuclear issue needs to be resolved quickly, but a real accommodation involves more. This is something both sides agree upon and we should outline a practical way of giving effect to it. We should propose to Tehran and to our colleagues in the five-plus-one that if the Iranians will discuss the proposals made by the five-plus-one in June 2008, we will discuss the Iranian proposals of May 2008. It would be impractical to consider all these ideas simultaneously, so we should suggest taking one political security item that appears in each proposal, say Iraq and Afghanistan, and one economic/energy item that both support, say Middle East energy resources and their distribution, and add to these the nuclear problem. That would probably give us an acceptable initial agenda, which could be used first in confidential bilateral US-Iran discussions and, if they prosper, in talks involving all the five-plus-one members.

We should urge the Americans to say to the Iranians that they have noted repeated statements by the Iranian President and Foreign Minister favouring an international consortium to enrich uranium in Iran. But these have been brief and lacking in detail. How seriously are they to be taken? Would the Iranians please elucidate? We should stress to our partners that time has favoured, and is continuing to favour, the virtually unconstrained and increasingly successful development of the Iranian enrichment programme. By comparison with the continuance of this situation, an international consortium, albeit enriching on Iranian soil, is preferable. An independent national enrichment facility leaves all decisions up to Iran and involves precious little international oversight. It would be easy to establish secret enrichment facilities and hard to detect them. By contrast, IAEA safeguards accompanying an international consortium, together with the daily operational involvement of international managers and technicians, is as effective a deterrent to secret enriching and bomb-making as can be devised.

Would the Iranians accept? We shall not know until we try, but several considerations suggest they would. They would achieve international respectability, an end to sanctions, Security Council approval, the return of the nuclear file to the IAEA. And they would achieve their bottom line: enrichment on Iranian soil. They would get the financial and technical help with their reactor programme which they have publicly sought.

Finally, this solution avoids provoking other Middle Eastern states into beginning the development of nuclear weapons.

Mr Miliband, if you want accommodation in the Middle East and no nuclear weapons in Iran, this is a deal you cannot afford to miss.

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

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam