25 November 2013 16:29

While the official name given to the recently concluded negotiations between Western powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme may not be particularly inspiring, the talks concluded in Geneva might just constitute a major triumph for diplomacy.

Relations between the West and Iran have been characterised by mutual hostility for decades. In recent years tensions have revolved around the development of Iran’s nuclear programme. For many Western powers (particularly the United States and Israel) this has constituted the first step in the development of a nuclear weapons programme by Iran that would destabilise the Middle East and threaten vital Western interests. The Iranians have always maintained that their nuclear programme is solely for peaceful purposes and view Western efforts to stymie it as the latest neo-colonial affront to their sovereignty. Following continued accusations that Iran was failing to adhere to its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a series of increasingly severe sanctions have been imposed on the country by the US, the EU and the United Nations.

In recent years, however, there have been indications of a thawing of relations between Iran and the West. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 he stated that he was willing to talk to America’s enemies and specifically offered to open negotiations with Iran. These efforts initially appeared to bear little fruit. However, the election of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran in the summer of 2013 appeared to offer Western powers a more congenial negotiating partner. Low level diplomacy finally entered a higher gear with the first round of talks between the E3/EU3 (France, Germany, UK, China, Russia and USA) and Iran in Geneva earlier this month. These talks resumed on 20th November and ended a few days later with a deal having been struck between the Western powers and Iran. The key aspects of this accord are that Iran will scale back its nuclear activities (reducing Western fears over Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear bomb) in return for an easing of sanctions.

It is important to note that this is only an interim agreement aimed at paving the way for a more permanent settlement on the Iranian nuclear issue. In the meantime, the fragile accord is likely to be the subject of sustained attacks by parties hostile to any rapprochement with Iran. These will come not least from within the two main parties to the agreement. In Iran hardliners may wish to renege on the concessions made in Geneva and there is always the possibility that agreements negotiated by the likes of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif can be overruled by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In the United States hawks in Congress are overtly hostile towards any deal with Iran and are likely to continue their attempts to legislate for new sanctions that would undermine the Geneva agreement. Rival powers throughout the Middle East are also likely to agitate against the deal with Iran. In particular, Saudi Arabia is fearful that any attempt to bring Iran in from the cold will undermine its own status in the region. Israel also has demonstrated an unflinching hostility to any negotiations with Iran and will most likely maintain this attitude.

But while the agreement struck between Western powers and Iran at Geneva last week is clearly less than perfect, efforts to derail the process of negotiations should be vigorously resisted. For while there are still many obstacles to securing a negotiated settlement between Western powers and Iran, diplomacy aimed at this goal is the only sustainable method of achieving a resolution to one of the most world’s most pressing issues.

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