British ambassador Peter Westmacott: Now is the time for diplomacy with Iran

Guest Commentary

This week the United Kingdom joins the United States, France, Germany, Russia and China in Geneva for a further round of detailed negotiations between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus one (P5+1) and Iran on all aspects of that country’s nuclear program.

The threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is one of the gravest dangers to global peace and security. That is why all six governments are united in seeking — on behalf of the international community — a serious, solid and credible agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program. The deal currently under negotiation would be a meaningful first step, immediately improving our national security and that of our partners in the region. This is, therefore, a critical week for diplomacy.

The European Union has stood along alongside the United States in enacting the unprecedented sanctions that have brought Iran to the table. Those sanctions are costing the Iranian economy several billion dollars a month. President Hassan Rouhani was elected to improve the economy, including by negotiating sanctions relief. The deal discussed in the last round of talks in Geneva, which is on the agenda again on Wednesday, would only provide Iran with sanctions relief that is limited, targeted and, most importantly, reversible. What is on the table will not undermine our comprehensive sanctions framework. Core financial and oil sanctions will only be removed as part of a final, long-term, verifiable settlement.

We approach these discussions absolutely clear-eyed. Iran’s history of concealment and the extensive nature of its program mean that any final agreement will have to be clear and detailed, cover all aspects of that program and provide assurance that the threat of nuclear proliferation is fully addressed. But in order to create the time and space for negotiations on a comprehensive deal, we need to reach agreement on a first step. Nuclear security experts are supporting the negotiations to ensure that the impact on Iran’s program will be meaningful and that enhanced monitoring will be capable of providing the assurances we need.

That will be the focus of this week’s talks — the third round in six weeks. The discussions have been intense, complex and more detailed than ever before. Many gaps between the parties have been bridged altogether; those that remain have narrowed considerably. The foreign ministers who joined their negotiating teams in Geneva 10 days ago were united in putting on the table a deal that tests Iran’s seriousness about reaching a negotiated settlement.

Now is the time for diplomacy. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is a tough negotiator, but a constructive one. The interim deal on the table opens up the prospect of a comprehensive settlement in the coming months. It is significantly better than the status quo. We will not get a better deal by altering the dynamics now — still less by offering the naysayers in Tehran a chance to question the good faith of the P5+1 and of Iran’s own negotiators. 

We are keeping up the pressure. But further sanctions now would only hurt negotiations and risk eroding international support for the sanctions that have brought us this far. The time for additional measures will come if Iran reneges on the deal or if negotiations fail. Now is not that time. 

Westmacott is the British ambassador to the United States.