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Munich conference breaks Iran-US ice
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - Iran and the United States are on the verge of a historical opportunity to repair their frozen relations and thus reverse the spiral of conflict spiral that for years has dominated their interactions. It is the right thing to do and at the right time, given the fact that more often than not past opportunities were lost simply because one side or the other was not "ready".
Fortunately, today's situation is different and that is a cause for cautious optimism in light of positive statements from US and Iranian officials, particularly by US Vice-President Joseph Biden who, while attending the 49th Munich Security Conference, announced US's readiness to engage in serious dialogue with Iran, a move that was immediately reciprocated by Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akba Salehi, who termed Biden's remark as a welcome "step forward."
"We have no red line for bilateral negotiations when it comes to negotiating over a particular subject ...", Salehi said in Munich. "If the subject is the nuclear file, yes, we are ready for negotiations but we have to make sure ... that the other side this time comes with authentic intention, with a fair and real intention to resolve the issue."
At the same time, reacting to Biden's remark that the window for diplomacy is not open forever and that all options are still on the table, Salehi rightly branded as "contradictory" the US's intention to talk "but on the other side you use this threatening rhetoric that everything is on the table... these are not compatible with each other.We are ready for engagement only when it is on equal footing."
In Tehran, Salehi's position was backed by, among others, Alaedin Boroujerdi, a powerful member of parliament (Majlis) and chairman of the Majlis Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, who reiterated Salehi's concerns about the need for the US to prove it has "sincere intentions" and also clarified that the decision to hold talks with the US is on the shoulder of the Supreme National Security Council (headed by Saeed Jalili).
Coinciding with Salehi's Munich trip, where he met for the first time with the leader of Syrian opposition, was Jalili's trip to Damascus and his high-profile meeting with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, expressing full support for Bashar and denouncing Israel's recent air raid on Syria.
In three weeks, Jalili will be in Kazakhstan for the next round of nuclear talks with the "P5+1" nations (the United Nations Security Council's permanent five members plus Germany), that is, shortly after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address (scheduled for February 14). The big question is, of course, whether or not the White House is really ready for a new round of "Iran engagement?"
Questions about US's strategy toward Iran
According to Mehdi Mohammadi, a former political editor of conservative daily Kayah, who is advising Jalili on the nuclear issue, the US must change its strategy toward Iran if it wants a successful nuclear negotiation with Iran. But, then again, what exactly is US's strategy toward Iran?
In a nutshell, US's Iran strategy boils down to two things: containment of Iranian power and the deterrence of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Concerning the latter, outgoing US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in her final speech at the Council on Foreign Relations prioritized the Iran nuclear threat and reiterated that US is firmly committed to "preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability".
The problem with this statement is that Iran has already reached the threshold of nuclear capability by virtue of mastering the complete nuclear fuel cycle, and this is a fait accompli that has yet to be factored and fully integrated into a realistic US strategy toward Iran. (For more on this see Afrasiabi US think tank fuels the Iran nuclear crisis, Asia Times Online, January 25, 2013). Incredibly, the US's narrative on nuclear Iran consistently fails to make the crucial distinction between potential and actual capability and to draw the related policy ramifications from this necessary distinction.
As a result, if the US's intention of talks is to insist on the suspension of the uranium enrichment program, then it is a futile effort that is doomed to fail in light of Iranian leadership's clear signals that they will not stop the enrichment activity under any circumstance.
What Tehran may be willing to consider is a voluntary ceiling on the uranium enrichment, a temporary suspension of 20% enrichment, and the like; that is, certain compromises that do not infringe on Iran's "inalienable nuclear rights" enshrined in the articles of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
These could be complemented with efforts to enhance Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, perhaps, the re-adoption of the intrusive Additional Protocol. Tehran has also stated its readiness to register the Supreme Leader's edict against nuclear weapons at the United Nations, in order to prove that it is not simply a religious ruling but rather the national Iranian policy.
Together, these Iranian steps would provide "objective guarantees" regarding the peaceful nature and intent of Iran's nuclear program, the fact that Iran would not misuse its nuclear capability by crossing the line and turning actual its present latent or potential weapons ability. 
But will these steps suffice to lift the Western sanctions on Iran? And is the US ready to reciprocate Iran's moves by stepping away from the coercive diplomacy that has become second nature to Washington? Another question is what role or influence US allies, such as Britain or France, will have in the coming talks?
The reason that last question matters is that the Conservative government of British Prime Minister David Cameron is apt to play a spoiler role, given its close ties with Israel, and this may explain why the European Union's foreign policy chief, Cathereine Ashton, in her Munich speech kept up the emphasis on "political and economic pressure" so that "Iran understands".
Ashton and the White House are somewhat out of sync with each other and this raises the issue of connection between bilateral US-Iran talk and multilateral nuclear talks, the fact that the latter has the distinct potential and can set back the former. In turn, this raises the need for the US to insulate its Iran policy from third-party influence as much as possible, focusing on its own net of interests - and the areas of mutual interest and shared concerns with Iran, such as the future of Afghanistan.
Indeed, this is a litmus test of US foreign policy in the administration of Barack Obama's second presidency and it will not be long before we know the results.
1. Keeping Iran's nuclear option latent, Kaveh Afrasiabi, Harvard International Review.