Nuclear Conflict with Iran
Time for the West to Shift its Stance

The Iranian President's latest overtures in the nuclear row are being followed with great interest in the West, where the attitude that Iran must now follow up its words with deeds still prevails. But if the negotiations are to succeed, the West must also signal a readiness to make concessions, says Ulrich von Schwerin

Normally, within the framework of official relations, there would be nothing unusual about a meeting of foreign ministers or a telephone conversation between presidents. But between the US and Iran, who have avoided all contact since the storming and occupation of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, Rohani's telephone call with US President Barack Obama was an almost revolutionary step.

As the culmination of a week in which both sides underlined their willingness to embark upon a process of rapprochement in a series of interviews and speeches, the conversation bolsters hopes for a breakthrough in the muddled nuclear row.

But as great as the hopes for an agreement may be, the threatening prospect of political failure still remains very real. And this is not only because it remains an open question to what extent the Iranian President Rohani is really willing to make the necessary compromises and how stable his position of power in Iran is. It is also because in the West, the problematic stance still prevails that the promising words must now also be followed up by deeds, before it can make any concessions itself.

Barack Obama on the phone in the Oval Office talking to Iran's President Rouhani (photo: rtr)
Historic opportunity for a resolution to the nuclear row? Following the first direct conversation between the presidents of Iran and US, hopes are now pinned on negotiations set for mid-October. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has said the talks must be used to find a solution to the conflict. The foreign ministry in Tehran has expressed a willingness to negotiate over the extent of uranium enrichment

But this position is not only tactically imprudent, it is also unjustified if one considers the historic progression of nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Pearls for peanuts

It is tactically imprudent because Iran will only shift its stance if it receives concrete and immediate returns. This truism has already been disregarded by diplomatic negotiations in 2003, when the Europeans issued only vague promises in return for the suspension of uranium enrichment and the authorization of unannounced spot checks.

Rohani, who was previously a chief nuclear negotiator himself, was then accused in Iran of having given pearls in exchange for peanuts. This means he is unlikely to make the same mistake again.

Historically speaking, this stance is also ill-judged because it implies that up to this point, Iran alone has been to blame for any failure to reach an agreement. But the West absolutely shares this responsibility, because due to ideological caveats and excessive demands it has repeatedly and carelessly missed opportunities to arrive at a solution.

Even after hardliner Mahmud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005, which led to the resumption of uranium enrichment and Rohani's resignation as nuclear negotiator, Tehran made several attempts to reach a solution to the conflict.

Nuclear Negotiations in 2005: Hassan Rouhani (r.) and Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Britain's Foreign Minister Jack Straw, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and EU High Commissioner Javier Solana (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Open to dialogue with the West: As Chairman of the National Security Council, Hassan Rouhani led nuclear negotiations with the West from 2003 to 2005. At the time, he agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and to allow surprise inspections

Among other things in February 2010, Iran offered to limit uranium enrichment to a degree of five percent, if it received fuel rods for the research reactor in Tehran in return. In May 2010, Iran reached an agreement with Brazil and Turkey that foresaw the export of the low-enriched uranium in exchange for fuel rods.

Later too, when Iran was already in a position to enrich uranium up to levels of 20 percent, it offered to limit the enrichment in exchange for fuel rods. But all these proposals were dismissed by the West.

Fundamentally obstructive approach

It is without doubt that none of the suggestions offered a comprehensive solution and without doubt, there was also cause to be suspicious of Tehran's refusal to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But western states – first and foremost the US – primarily rejected the proposals because they did not meet their demand for a complete halt to uranium enrichment. This is a way for the West to be absolutely sure that Iran will not have the technology at its disposal to manufacture weapons-grade uranium.

But Iran rightly makes reference to the fact that in accordance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, it is allowed to produce fuel for its reactors. For the government in Tehran, control of the full nuclear fuel cycle is now a matter of national honour. And Rohani is not about to relent over this issue.

Instead of continuing its insistence that Iran give up its uranium enrichment programme, the West should instead urge Tehran to at last dispel lingering doubts over the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme. Iran certainly has an obligation to provide evidence to this effect.

Disproportionate sanctions

But the West also has its own obligations to fulfil. After all, in view of the fact that while legitimate doubts over the purely civilian character of the nuclear programme do exist, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest any military objective and the sanctions imposed on Tehran are therefore disproportionate.

A man holding a bundle of Rials, Iran's currency, in Tehran (photo:Vahid Salemi/AP/dapd)
The national currency in free fall, and a worsening supply crisis facing the population: Iranian President Rouhani favours rapprochement with the West over the nuclear issue to secure the lifting of sanctions. Since last year, these have led to a dramatic economic crisis with steeply rising inflation, a huge drop in the value of the currency and a significant disruption to trade

In their severity and scope they amount to an economic war – with devastating humanitarian consequences. At the latest since the oil embargo came into force in the summer of 2012 and the interruption of financial transactions, they are having a greater impact on the population than the regime.

State revenues have collapsed as a consequence of the oil embargo, sending the currency into free fall. Despite a slight recovery since Rohani took office, the Rial is still languishing at a third of its value two years ago.

Inflation has soared as a consequence of the Rial's nose-dive. This has not only meant that many Iranians can no longer afford to travel abroad, often their money isn't even enough to cover the basic essentials at home. Even those in a relatively secure position say that life was never so hard as over the past two years.

In addition, the financial sanctions make doing business with Iran very difficult. Many companies have pulled out of all dealings with Iran altogether – partly because they fear possible infringement of the imposed sanctions, and partly because they are quite simply no longer getting the money for their goods. One of the consequences of this is an acute shortage of pharmaceutical products – although these are explicitly exempt from the sanctions. In the light of this, claims that the sanctions are not aimed at ordinary people take on a mocking tone.

An end to sanctions a distant prospect?

The awkward aspect of sanctions is that they are more easily imposed than lifted. Particularly in the US, this would require in many cases approval by Congress. There is a lack of clear criteria concerning what concessions Iran must make to attain the cancellation of the sanctions. The frequently conveyed impression is that a repeal will only be considered after an agreement has been reached.

But this contradicts the whole point of sanctions. They essentially serve not as a means of retribution, but as a flexibly applied leverage that must also of course be retractable.

If negotiations are to be in a position to achieve success in future, Iran must cooperate fully with the IAEA to clear up all remaining questions. But the West must also – and it can – alter its stance to create the requisite negotiatory dynamic.

The sanctions are now so diverse and far-reaching that there is some scope here for concessions. But if the West again issues nothing but promises rather than concrete and relevant concessions, the current opportunity will go to waste.

Ulrich von Schwerin

© 2013

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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