The news that Iran and the six major powers – the US, China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany – are to resume talks over Tehran's nuclear ambitions at the beginning of next month has to be welcomed. Of course, you can argue that it is just a gesture by Iran to stave off the sanctions threatened by the West should the country proceed with its uranium enrichment. Given Tehran's insistence on its absolute right to pursue uranium enrichment whatever the United Nations' objections, and given an internal crackdown which presages a sharp swing to the right, then it is easy to dismiss any talks as a sham behind which Iran will accelerate its plan to become a nuclear power.
But then think of the alternatives to talks. If negotiations were not resuming, we would be faced with an impasse in which the West is committed to introducing a whole range of new and punitive sanctions on the country and the Israelis might well feel free to bomb the facilities to prevent Tehran reaching its goal. Both avenues would bring on a confrontation that would play into the hands of Tehran's hardliners and risk, in the case of a military strike, a conflagration that could suck in the whole region.
Nor is it necessary to embark on such alternatives. Tehran may, or may not, wish to obtain command of nuclear technology, but at this moment it remains formally committed to a religious edict against such weapons and a continued membership of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty that would ban it from developing them. True, it has been accused of continuous evasion over its plans by the International Atomic Energy Agency. True, too, the government in Tehran seems to be swinging towards more oppression at home and greater anti-Western rhetoric abroad.
But the nuclear negotiations have always been handled separately from the rest of the government by a regime that treads carefully where its international interests are concerned. The Iranians are a proud and deeply nationalist people. But they are neither foolish nor xenophobic. It is better to take them at face value and pursue talks in good faith, rather than play crude power politics in a manner that could so easily end in disaster.