Bridging the Persian Gulf

AT LAST, AFTER more than 30 years of isolation since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the U.S.-installed Shah, American and Iranian officials are talking to each other. The late September telephone conversation between President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani was an important first step. If the two sides can reach an agreement on ending the nuclear standoff, it could pave the way for other forms of cooperation that could significantly improve regional and global security.

Because of the historical mistrust between the United States and Iran that goes at least as far back as the 1954 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, achieving progress will require diplomatic flexibility on both sides. The core objectives of the international community are to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to guarantee that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. This can be accomplished by convincing Tehran to accept binding limits on its nuclear program and by robust monitoring mechanisms to guarantee the absence of military-related activities.

Iran’s objectives are to gain international acceptance of its right to develop nuclear energy, including uranium enrichment, and to obtain relief from crippling sanctions. If Tehran takes steps toward accepting limits and agreeing to enhanced transparency and monitoring, Washington should offer an initial partial suspension of sanctions and pledge to lift additional sanctions as progress proceeds. This would help jump-start the talks and strengthen President Rouhani’s hand in the face of hardliners.

The initial suspension might aim to ease prohibitions on the financing of exports to Iran of specified civilian goods, including medical supplies, agricultural products, consumer goods, and related non-military goods and services. The European Union and the U.N. Security Council could adopt parallel measures.

An initial suspension of sanctions would not be an unprecedented or radical step. This July, the United States removed restrictions that had denied the Iranian people access to medicines and medical supplies. In September, the U.S. eased restrictions on humanitarian activities and athletic exchanges with Iran. These humanitarian gestures could be followed with a diplomatic move to suspend additional non-military financial sanctions.

Some in Washington are opposed to this approach. They favor threatening more sanctions, and are demanding that Iran dismantle its nuclear facilities. Former White House nuclear adviser Gary Samore told The New York Times recently that Iran would face “sticker shock” at the price of easing sanctions. On the price list would be dismantling major nuclear facilities, including the almost-completed, multi-billion-dollar heavy-water reactor at Arak and the underground enrichment site at Fordo.

These are unreasonable demands that would scuttle the chances of a diplomatic agreement. They go beyond the terms of U.N. resolutions, which call for greater Iranian cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and a suspension of enrichment and construction at heavy-water sites, but make no mention of dismantling nuclear facilities. These facilities are currently under inspection by the IAEA, and presumably after a negotiated agreement would be under even tighter monitoring.

In an ideal world, we might all wish to see Iran without significant nuclear potential, but that is neither feasible nor necessary in the near term. An agreement that limits Iran’s enrichment program and provides more robust and intrusive monitoring would allay fears about an Iranian nuclear bomb.

A nonproliferation agreement with Iran could lay the foundation for other steps toward peace in the region. Iran’s cooperation, along with that of Russia, might be useful in trying to end the civil war in Syria, perhaps persuading the Assad regime to accept a ceasefire and negotiated agreement with rebel forces. Tehran might also be willing to cooperate with Washington in ensuring that the Taliban does not take over in Afghanistan as U.S. military forces leave next year.

Much is at stake in the current negotiations, not only in reducing the nuclear threat but possibly improving the prospects for peace throughout the region. 

David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Image: U.S.A. and Iran, ruskpp /

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