The tidings from the Bosphorous are good. The long-awaited meeting of the P5+1 and Iran ended on a positive note in Istanbul on Saturday. The BBC caught the atmospherics almost impartially and was willing to see the Iranians as normal human beings. Overall, there is a studied attempt by the western media to ease the tensions.
Which is just as well, since there was ample time for grandstanding and polemics. The time has now come for business to commence and good atmospherics helps.
The date of the next round of talks has been fixed – May 23. And, the venue too – Baghdad. The choice of Baghdad was at Iran’s behest. Did it puncture Turkey’s vanities as a regional power? Maybe, yes. After all that Turkey did to Iran in the recent month, it isn’t surprising – blatant interference in Syria, deployment of the US missile defence system, regional axis with Saudi Arabia and the 20% cutback on oil imports from Iran.
But by suggesting Baghdad, Iran also subtly reminded the P5+1 that there is much to talk about and the nuclear issue is only one vector of its standoff with the West. Baghdad beckons attention to the Middle East’s crisis as well as the profound shifts that have taken place in regional security scenario since 2003.
Russia obviously played its part in ensuring that the Istanbul meeting gained traction. The Iranians drew attention to this by holding their only ‘bilateral’ in the sidelines of the Istanbul talks with the Russian delegation. With the captain’s role in navigating the choppy waters of the Syrian crisis and the role of the guide in nudging all sides toward the greener pastures of the Istanbul talks, Russia figures as a key player in the Middle Eastern politics. That's a remarkable ‘post-Soviet’ comeback for Russian foreign policy on the world stage.
In brief, the picture that emerges from Istanbul is that the West has decided it can learn to live with Iran’s nuclear program so long as it is peaceful and in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT].
Catherine Ashton, European Union’s foreign policy chief, was categorical: “Iran should enjoy the right to have a peaceful nuclear program.” She disclosed,
We were assured that Iran is serious. We have agreed that the nonproliferation treaty forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement to ensure all the obligations under the treaty are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran's right for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Ashton chose her words carefully in assessing that Saturday’s talks have provided the basis for a “sustained process of serious dialogue.” Most important, she was ready to look ahead with optimism:
We expect subsequent meetings will lead to concrete steps towards a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program… We are serious about taking tangible and practical measures.
Iran’s chief 'nuclear negotiator' and secretary-general of Iran’s National Security Council Saeed Jalili firmly rejected the idea of Iran stopping its nuclear program – suspending Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the removal of sanctions is a literature that belongs to the past.” But he made clear he wasn’t being rhetorical, adding, “the opposite side (read western powers) had entered the talks with a positive attitude toward Cooperation.”
What we observed in the approach stated by the [P5+1] members today was an approach towards talks and cooperation and we consider this to be positive. We have always stated that pressure and the language of threat is useless in dealing with the Iranian nation, but talks and cooperation can be a positive approach.
All the same, Jalili acknowledged that Iran expects an easing of the sanctions and would regard this as a focal point of future discussions. But he put it this way:
It is of crucial importance that our (future) cooperation will entail reciprocal steps, that is, our nation's trust should be built in the trend of talks and cooperation… "Iran, as an active member of the NPT, should enjoy its rights alongside its undertakings. We deeply believe that removal of sanctions, which is demanded by the Iranian nation, is one of the issues which should receive attention in the trend of talks on cooperation.
That is to say, Iran expects the easing or withdrawal of sanctions as “reciprocal steps”. Interestingly, this also happened to be the expression used by the White House on the eve of the Istanbul talks.
Saturday’s talks were obviously more about form than content. Ashton and Jalili have designated their deputies to prepare a draft agreement “for the framework of cooperation” for the upcoming talks in Baghdad. Jalili was upbeat. “Mutual cooperation will start after preparing this draft and we hope to witness positive steps on the ground.” [Emphasis added.] He added:
We agreed that talks should continue over a range of issues, including the nuclear issue, with a positive and constructive approach, and it was agreed that talks continue to enter a constructive and positive trend of comprehensive and sustainable cooperation favored by both sides, and this should take place through step-by-step and reciprocal action.
That is to say, the talks will generate a “constructive and positive trend of comprehensive and sustainable cooperation” within which Tehran will take steps and the West will take reciprocal steps.
I sense a surge in British diplomacy in the coming days and weeks, notwithstanding the chill in US-Iran ties. The point is, the two countries have a lot of mutual experience in dealing with each other. (Only Russia can match Britain’s historical experience.) Besides, Britain would want to be in the forefront of the West's rapprochement with Iran. Jalili went out of the way to compliment the “remarkable” role Ashton played in bringing the process to the present point.
The British Foreign Secretary William Hague was quickly off the mark to commend the fruitful outcome of the talks in Istanbul, saying the West is “determined to pursue a serious dialogue with Iran and committed to finding a peaceful, negotiated solution to the nuclear issue.” He described the talks in Istanbul as “a first step” towards that objective and that Britain looked forward to the next round of talks in Baghdad.
Quite obviously, Tehran won’t be hustled. The Iranian delegation repeatedly spurned the overtures from the American side for a ‘bilateral’ on Saturday. They will be satisfied that a good beginning has been made and there has been no demand to mothball Iran's nuclear program. What steps Tehran now takes to prompt the West to take “reciprocal” steps is the thing to be watched. According to US president Barack Obama, Tehran knows exactly what to do. Jalili now has used the expression “reciprocal” more than once. Presumably, Obama too knows exactly what to do.
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