February 14, 2013 6:14 pm

Iran’s intransigence

There is time for a nuclear deal – but Tehran must budge

For much of this week, western governments fearing the spread of atomic weapons have had their eyes firmly fixed on North Korea, which has just conducted its third underground nuclear test. But in the next few days, attention will turn back to the other nuclear pariah state, Iran. On February 26 Iran will meet six world powers in Kazakhstan, resuming attempts to broker a deal that allays western fears that the Iranians are seeking a nuclear bomb. Immediate success is unlikely. Still, this will be yet another moment for the world to assess whether diplomacy has any chance of success.

As they prepare to meet Iran in the city of Almaty, it is hard to fault the efforts by the US and its allies to strike a deal. President Barack Obama has said the US is prepared to hold bilateral talks with Iran to boost the chance of success, an offer recently repeated by Joe Biden, vice-president. In Kazakhstan, meanwhile, the US and its allies will make a more generous offer to Iran than they did last year, widening the list of sanctions that they would reverse if Iran also halts troubling features of its nuclear programme.

However, Iran is proving unbudgeable. Despite crippling sanctions, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader, has rejected the US offer of talks. On Thursday Iran flatly ruled out helping the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into military dimensions of its nuclear programme. Meanwhile, the regime is building up production capacity at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, putting it in a better position for a sudden dash to the bomb at some later date.

At this stage, three things must be said. First, there is still time for a deal to be done. In 2013 Iran will not reach the point where it could complete a nuclear bomb and test it without the US and Israel discovering and preventing it.

Secondly, Iran cannot simply stonewall in Kazakhstan. If Israel is to be deterred from pre-emptive military action this year it needs to see that the Iranians are not completely closed to the idea of resolving the nuclear issue.

Finally, Mr Obama needs to get the balance right in his stance on Iran. He must keep open the possibility of engagement, making clear to Ayatollah Khamenei that regime change is not his aim. But he must again assert that if Iran gets close to a weapon, the US will intervene militarily. That message needs to be clear if Israel is to be restrained from pre-emptive action, and Iran is to be encouraged to negotiate.

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