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Silver lining in Iran nuclear talks
Despite the deadlock at last week's talks in Moscow between Iran and world powers on the former's nuclear ambitions, it seems not all hope is lost.
The glimmer of progress lies in the support building for a technical agreement on a nuclear fuel swap, which is the subject of a technical follow-on meeting for July 3 in Istanbul, as well as in improved confidence-building measures between the US and Iran.
Talk of a "diplomatic window closing" on Iran is also a thing of the past. This was reflected in a joint statement by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin after a meeting on June 20 in Mexico, which emphasized the importance of a "phased" approach to resolving the Iran nuclear standoff.
However, the Iranian press has been critical of the stingy response from Western governments to Iran's nuclear offers at the talks. A report by the International Crisis Group has also criticized the West's counter-offers to Iran as "ungenerous."
Irrespective of the shortcomings of their diplomatic approach, the US and its Western allies are inching towards a better understanding of the Iranian perspective and the country's outlook on nuclear and regional issues. Over time, its likely this could contribute towards a deal that would represent a qualitative breakthrough, and signal the West's preparedness to avoid further conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This despite a flare-up of contrary rhetoric from the French socialist government, which last week warned of stiffer sanctions against Iran.
Few Western experts doubt that the West is now considerably more assured about Iran's nuclear intentions than a year ago, in light of Iran's serious offers of compromise on key nuclear issues, transparency, access to the International Atomic Energy Agency and suspension of 20% enriched uranium, all of which were again floated at the Moscow meeting.
Iran's soft power diplomacy has also been moved forward by Tehran as its hammers home the point that it was the other side's rigid approach that blocked a deal in Moscow. In essence, the West is now on the defensive and faces a tough time justifying its present course of action against Iran, particularly in a divided Europe that has much to lose from rising oil prices in the event of escalated tensions over Iran's nuclear program.
Europe's economic vulnerability limits its leverage on the Iran issue, and France's threat of toughened sanctions is not shared by most EU governments, some of whom have already received waivers from the Obama administration's sanctions on Iran.
With respect to Tehran-Washington dialogue, there is now a fairly solid understanding between the two sides that no major deal will be struck until after the US presidential elections in November. Until then, the best and most feasible and mutually-agreed course of action is to keep the lines of negotiation open, no matter how skeletal, since this will have a disproportionate impact in staving off a military strike on Iran and giving a new lease of life to diplomacy.
An Obama who can approach the issue without concerns over his re-election will be more amenable to striking a deal, which is why Tehran has opted for a patient approach that takes into account Obama's election chances and his future ability to launch a meaningful engagement.
The West's "great refusal" on Iran's nuclear offers is not likely to sustain itself much longer. As that line falters, a new sentiment is rising among the "Iran six" group that envisions incremental resolution of the crisis.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).