The announcement that talks with Iran over the country’s nuclear programme will resume later this month sounds potentially exciting – but perhaps only for those with short memories. There have been plenty of six-party talks with Iran before, and they have generally left the negotiators frustrated and angry.
Is there any reason to think things might be better this time? Clutching at a straw, I initially got excited by the fact that the latest talks are to be held in Kazakhstan. The Kazaks like to point out that they are one of the very few nations ever to have given up nuclear weapons. Indeed President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been waging a lonely and unsuccessful campaign to get himself awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, on the basis of these anti-nuclear credentials. But, on reflection, I think I may have over-played the Kazak angle.
A more substantial reason for hoping that there might be a real Iranian change of heart is that sanctions are having a really serious effect on the economy. On the other hand, Iran has its own presidential election next June. Just as the US was unable to try anything new on Iran in the pre-election season, so Iran seems unlikely to make radical policy shifts ahead of its own leadership battle. (Of course, Iranian politics are hardly the mirror image of the US – but the overall effect might still be the same.)
One new sounding element was Joe Biden’s offer, earlier today, to hold direct talks with the Iranians. But Tehran does not seem eager to respond – the more bureaucratic and gluey six-party talks might suit them better, particularly if the plan is to stall, rather than deal.
Most of the diplomats I know who have actually been involved in nuclear talks with Iran over the years have found the whole experience deeply dispiriting and frustrating. One told me that he rated the chances of success as 10% at best.
So why carry on? The diplomat’s reply was that the alternatives – war or a nuclear Iran – were so dreadful, that he felt compelled to establish that there really was no other option. A cheerful thought to set us up for those talks in Astana!