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Iran’s Nuclear Program. The Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey

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Istanbul/Washington/Brussels - As the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program edges closer to military confrontation, talks may be a way out but require mutual compromise and Western abandonment of the notion that a mix of threats and crippling sanctions will force Iran to back down.

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In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, warns that if the West does not do its utmost to revive the diplomatic option by putting forward a meaningful and realistic offer, it runs the risk of cornering itself in a perilous war. It argues that constructive lessons could be learned from Turkey’s experience in engaging Iran.

“Turkey cannot solve a three-decade old crisis of confidence between Iran and the U.S.”, says Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director. “But a world community in desperate need of fresh thinking could benefit by testing Ankara’s assumptions about how best to deal with Tehran”.

The situation seldom has been more confusing or worrying. Key players – Israel, the U.S. and Iran – swing from threats and sabre-rattling to more reassuring postures; open talk of a possible future war goes together with secretive acts of hostility, including cyber-attacks, the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, mysterious explosions in Iran and attacks against Israeli targets in various countries. The West hopes its tough sanctions will compel Iran to compromise. But it is as likely that Tehran will instead lash out.

This is a recipe for intentional or accidental confrontation. The result could be a war with high costs (including possible Iranian retaliatory moves in Iraq, Afghanistan and against Israel) for uncertain gains (a delay in Iran’s nuclear progress countered by the likely expulsion of IAEA inspectors, intensified determination to acquire a bomb and accelerated efforts to do so).

By contrast, Turkey believes in direct, energetic engagement with Iranian officials, holds that Tehran’s right to enrich on its soil ought to be acknowledged upfront and is convinced small steps are better than nothing. With Iran’s positive response to an offer of talks, an opportunity for diplomacy exists through:

recognition of Iran’s right in principle to enrich on its soil, subject to it settling outstanding issues with the IAEA on alleged past weaponisation experiments and implementing stricter IAEA safeguards for both nuclear and allegedly related non-nuclear research facilities;

revival of a nuclear fuel rod supply deal for the Tehran Research Reactor, including a temporary freeze of Iran’s 20 per cent uranium enrichment and phase-out of its 20 per cent enriched existing stockpile;

in exchange, freezing of the latest U.S. and European Union sanctions and gradual rollback of earlier ones; and

in parallel, U.S.-Iranian talks on other aspects of their bilateral relationship. It also will be essential for all parties to end hostile behaviour and provocative rhetoric, including threats to attack and involvement in bombings or assassinations.

“If it is either sanctions, whose success is hard to imagine, or military action, whose consequences are terrifying to contemplate, that is not a choice”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “It is an abject failure”.

23 February 2012

© Crisis International -
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