Possible breakthrough over Iran’s nuclear program?

As officials prepare for the talks in Istanbul, they would do well to rise above the immediate concerns, the tactical successes or failures, and remember that beyond the demands, the red lines, the punishments, the talk of threats, the incentives, the rhetoric, the reputations, the media images and games played, there are also deeper, common interests that could be developed that could dramatically change the game for the better. Last week author and journalist Stephen Kinzer whilst in London to promote his new book, proposed that the United States and its western allies would do well to reconsider their alignment in the Middle East, and put more effort into deepening their relationship with Turkey, and with Iran. The fall of the government in Tunis in what has variously been described as the first ever overthrow of an Arab premier by mass uprising, underlined comments made last week by Secretary of State Clinton in Doha warning Middle East allies to open up socially and politically. She implicitly acknowledged that the contest in the region goes beyond nuclear issues, and will ultimately be decided in hearts and minds. The US Government itself would do well to think imaginatively about where its allegiances lie, and its strategies for reigning back existing and potential nuclear threats in the region.

Currently Iran presents an important challenge to the integrity of the non-proliferation regime, but this does not mean that the challenge is best dealt with by heavy-handed threats and isolation. Whilst this is partly down to political calculation and competition within Tehran itself, much of the Iranian challenge results from responses to what it sees as the strategically hostile environment created by the United States and her allies. This has become a contest of wills. As such, it can be transformed by a change in strategy on either side. There is nothing inevitable about the diplomatic conflict playing out in Istanbul. If both sides can find common ground that would be a big shot in the arm for the global nuclear disarmament vision espoused in recent years.

Paul Ingram is Executive Director of BASIC. He is a frequent commentator on the nuclear program in both western and Iranian media, and has a talk show on the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network every Friday evening dealing with issues of strategic importance to the Middle East.  The views expressed here are his own.