It is good news that Tehran has agreed to resume talks with the major world powers on its nuclear programme later this month. Dialogue between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany broke down in Moscow last June in an atmosphere of frustration and anger. Now, with the second Obama administration in place, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has said he hopes for progress when the talks convene in Kazakhstan.
There are tentative grounds for optimism. Mr Salehi has made positive noises about a possible change of tack by Washington that would not have been possible before the presidential election. There is also a growing sense that what the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, has called “the most robust sanctions in history” are taking their toll on the Iranian economy: Iran has lost $46bn in oil revenues; its currency is at an all-time low; inflation has soared above 30 per cent; staples such as chicken, rice and eggs have risen rapidly in price. The pressure is mounting on Iran’s political leadership ahead of the presidential election in June.
But there are formidable obstacles. Iran wants sanctions to be relaxed before talks begin. The world powers want Iran to begin reducing its growing stockpile of enriched uranium, the essential ingredient for a nuclear bomb. Yet only last week Iran told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to install more sophisticated centrifuges at its principal enrichment plant. This would enable it to accelerate the processing of uranium, a move likely to alarm not just Israel and the US.
The fear must be that Iran is entering new talks simply to play for time while it develops its weapons capability. There should be concern that Tehran has yet to respond to an invitation from Mr Biden to take part in direct one-to-one talks with the US. Tehran should accept that offer. And Washington should make sure there is something substantive to talk about. The more time that passes, the greater the danger that conflict could break out.