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Iran must make move to rescue diplomacy

By R.K. Ramazani

Iran should make a constructive offer now - before the new negotiations resume, possibly in early April. Iran needs to make a practical and positive move to support diplomacy and avert a possible war. The risk of war could increase if negotiations should fail. The crescendo of drumbeats of war last week has been deafening. Israel and its hawkish American supporters have pounced on President Obama en masse to pressure him to agree to precipitous military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I realize that any positive diplomatic gesture by Iran will be viewed gleefully as Iranian surrender to America as a result of presumed efficacy of the “crippling” sanctions imposed on Iran’s financial system and export of oil. But Iran has shown before that it is capable of innovative moves without the fear of losing face. It voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment in 2003 for about two years when it was negotiating with the EU-3 nations (Britain, France and Germany). An Iranian conciliatory offer now would put to shame those who view Iran as “messianic” and “irrational” and would also honor the ancient Iranian value of “pragmatic wisdom” (hekmat-e amaly).

In the face of rising sentiments for striking Iranian nuclear facilities, this is the most opportune time for Iran to prove by action the credibility of its longstanding claim that its nuclear program is for such peaceful purposes as producing electricity and providing medical treatment for many Iranian cancer and other patients.

That claim was recently articulated for the first time in the most unambiguous and solemn terms by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In his meeting of Feb. 22 with Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran, he stated categorically, “Nuclear weapons are not at all beneficial to us. Moreover, from an ideological fiqhi [Islamic jurisprudential] perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them.”

On this basis, Iran should offer to suspend all activities for enriching uranium at the 20 percent level and allow monitoring and verifying by the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. The offer must come before the start of, rather than during, the negotiations because of relentless Israeli pressure on Obama. Israeli officials demand that Iran halt its uranium enrichment before resumption of negotiations, which the U.S. has rejected. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not want the P-5 plus 1 nations (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) to even talk to Iran, a reminder of the early George W. Bush policy. Alas, the voices of J Street and other temperate Jewish groups are in danger of being drowned out.

For their part, the P-5 plus 1 nations should provide Iran with 20 percent enriched uranium. This exchange would jumpstart negotiations in regard to such thorny issues as the level of enriched uranium acceptable to both sides and the unhindered access of the IAEA inspectors to Iran’s nuclear sites at times of their choosing.

If Iran were to make this practical and positive move, President Obama should welcome it. Despite the clamor for military strikes, he should continue to emphasize diplomacy as an important American option. He failed to do so in his interview of March 2 with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in which he spoke mainly of two options, sanctions and war, although he did mention diplomacy as an option in his speech to pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC on March 4.

Beyond the need to highlight the importance of negotiations, President Obama should be prepared to pledge that the U.S. will not seek to change the Iranian regime if in the course of negotiations Iran demonstrates that it is willing to abandon any nuclear weapons ambitions. Short of the U.S. willingness to do so, I believe, it is highly unlikely that the nuclear dispute with Iran can ever be settled permanently by diplomacy.

The U.S. made an agreement with Iran more than 30 years ago that came quite close to a no-regime-change promise. The Algiers Accord of Jan. 19, 1981, between the U.S. and Iran provided: “The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s affairs.”

The accord settled the hostage crisis, and this pledge in particular induced Iran to sign it. The Obama administration could make a similar pledge now in order to aid the final resolution of the nuclear dispute and perhaps pave the way towards normalizing relations with Iran after 33 years of mutual hostility.

About the autor: Holder of the Thomas Jefferson Award and coeditor of two books on Jeffersonian ideas and the contemporary world, R.K. Ramazani serves on the advisory board of Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and is the Edward R. Stettinius emeritus professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

Note: This commentarty was distributed by Agence Global and is published here with permission of the author.

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