At different stages of the Iranian nuclear dispute, a window toward resolution has seemed to open up. For example, in 2003 Iran proposed comprehensive negotiations with the Bush administration but the window was quickly slammed shut due to the latter’s unwillingness to break the old tradition of containing Iran. This position also effectively prevented the pursuit of the diplomatic track until most of the UN sanctions resolutions against Iran had been adopted.
Obama’s openness for negotiations created the first opportunity for reaching a compromise deal in 2009. This time, however, the opportunity was lost due to domestic pressures on the Iranian side. The result was an increased determination in the West to continue with the sanctions track—a determination which also prevented the P5+1 from seizing another diplomatic opportunity offered to them by Turkish and Brazilian mediators in 2010. In spring 2012 a dim light of hope again emerged but soon faded away as discussions between Iran and the P5+1 only seemed to confirm the incompatibility of the two sides’ positions. Particularly since the latest round of discussions, there has been a sense of surrender to the interpretation that there simply is no diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear dispute.
Surrendering to cynicism and worst-case scenarios, however, is premature as diplomatic means have by no means been exhausted. The real challenge is that the multilateral nuclear diplomacy with Iran has fallen hostage to the U.S.-Iranian and Iranian-Israeli conflicts, which have reinforced the mutual lack of trust and created formidable obstacles for dialogue on both sides.
The P5+1 (five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and Iran should take note of the fact that there is a new window opening, and try to make most of it. The new opportunity comes in the form of a historic conference for the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East—a conference which will be held in Finland in December. What is special about this opportunity is that it allows Iran and the P5+1 to step outside of the negative dynamics created by their previous interactions, and to approach the nuclear issue from a different perspective.
What Iran can do is to show up and demonstrate that, despite resisting what it regards as the UNSC’s illegitimate demands for it to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, it is nevertheless committed to the norm of non-proliferation and the objective of establishing a region-wide zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Iran can also agree to take small confidence-building steps as a further demonstration of this commitment, in pace with other states in the region—despite the fact that Israel is unlikely to eliminate its nuclear weapons arsenal in the near future.
The main responsibility for seizing this opportunity, however, falls on the P5+1, three of which—the United States, Russia, and the U.K.–are conveners of the WMDFZ conference. What they can do is, first, to support the goals of this conference. On the one hand, this means that the P5, as the official nuclear weapon states, express readiness to provide security assurances to the regional actors that would be part to the WMDFZ. On the other hand, it means insisting that Israel be part of the process, and condemning its strategy of issuing threats of preemptive strikes against other states in the region. Such a position would represent a significant break from the present policy of silent approval and create a new kind of normative pressure on Israel to reconsider its nuclear posture. Vigorous efforts towards reducing the P5’s own nuclear weapons arsenals would naturally add credibility to the undertaking.
Second, particularly the Western members of the P5+1 group should understand that the objectives of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue and of initiating the WMDFZ process are complementary to one another. The key word here is confidence-building: while this is clearly a precondition for the establishment of a WMDFZ, it has all along been the long-term goal in the Iranian nuclear dispute. Paradoxically, this prior goal— which is also written into the UN resolutions as a justification for the demands that have been made to Iran since 2006—has not only been forgotten but also undermined by the several years of wrangling over the controversial issue of uranium enrichment.
The P5+1’s primary proposal for confidence-building—i.e. demanding that Iran cease all enrichment activities to reassure themselves about Iran’s intentions—has clearly been counterproductive. Acknowledgement of this fact should lead the P5+1 to appreciate Iran’s role in the WMDFZ process as an alternative, more sustainable path towards confidence-building. Would not Iran’s commitment to the establishment of a WMDFZ in the region provide evidence of its peaceful intentions, and would it thus not reduce some of the urgency of pursuing the short-term goal of suspension?
At the same time, the process of negotiating a WMDFZ provides an opportunity for the P5+1 to address the other side of the problem that they have thus far largely ignored—namely Iran’s own suspicions and mistrust. While Iranian concerns about military security and its doubts about the P5+1’s promises regarding peaceful nuclear cooperation are fuelled by the heated atmosphere of nuclear dispute, they might be alleviated by collective commitments made in the framework of the WMDFZ. Most notably, if the P5 can commit themselves to ensuring regional security under this framework, they will also need to show a new kind of sensitivity to Iran’s security concerns. Together with depoliticizing the controversial issue of enrichment and a stronger position against Israel’s nuclear weapons policy, this can be expected to increase Iran’s confidence in the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1.
Cynicism about finding a diplomatic resolution to the dispute with Iran and about what many regard as the utopian goals of the coming WMDFZ conference should not be used as an excuse for inaction. As in the case of détente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the past, the process of confidence-building in the Middle East today cannot begin from the immediate elimination of all threats. At the same time, no progress can be made when a maximum sense of confidence is provided for one side at the cost of insecurity for others. What is needed instead—both in the WMDFZ process and in the Iranian nuclear dispute—is patient and persistent dialogue towards an ambitious long-term goal: a regional order in which none of the states in the region feels that giving up the nuclear option will make it more vulnerable to attacks, either by its neighbors or by intervening outsiders. Such a situation, in which the incentives for proliferation are greatly reduced, would provide the only sustainable basis for a WMDFZ, as well as a lasting remedy to the chronic lack of confidence in Iran’s intentions.
Tytti Erästö is Stanton Nuclear Security Predoctoral Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. in International Relations in Tampere University, Finland, as part of the Finnish Research School for Political Studies. This piece was originally published at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government “Power and Policy” blog.