Iran this week signalled it was willing to resume negotiations with the international community – including over the opaque nuclear programme both its neighbours and the west find threatening – in search of what its national security chief Saeed Jalili called “fundamental steps for sustainable co-operation”. It is time to find out what, if anything, those words mean – perhaps the last chance before this protracted standoff spirals into a potentially catastrophic new war in the Middle East.

This ostensible overture should not be dismissed because it comes packaged in Tehran’s now ritualised breast-beating and exaggeration of its nuclear prowess. If this is yet another attempt by the regime to buy more time, that will soon become apparent. If the Islamic Republic really wants to negotiate, it has to turn up with proposals, not just bluster about preconditions.

But the international community – through the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) plus Germany – also has to be realistic.

Ratcheted-up sanctions, including an imminent oil embargo and the obstruction of Iran’s ability to finance its trade, are having a big impact on the Iranian economy. But it would still be optimistic to believe they will force the theocrats in Tehran to renounce the right to enrich uranium.

True, after being handed a series of strategic gifts in the region – its grip on post-occupation Iraq being only the most obvious – the tide is turning against Iran. It will eventually lose Syria, its gateway to the Mediterranean; Hizbollah is in some disarray; Hamas is pulling away. The revolutionaries of the new Arab Awakening look much more to Turkey than to Iran.

Yet that is precisely why Tehran will cling to the nuclear programme, a popular policy that it believes helps coerce consensus at home, fend off regime change from abroad, and consolidate Iran’s position as a regional power. Israel’s threat to attack Iran also helps the mullahs corral their citizens.

While Israel needs to give time and space to negotiations, it is not clear where the negotiators would be prepared to settle with Iran.

Current evidence suggests the Iranians want the ability to make a bomb but have not taken the decision to actually build one. Israel believes that “threshold” capability is not tolerable; the US is signalling that “weaponisation” is the red line; the Europeans are flapping around in the middle.

For talks to have any hope of success, there must eventually be clarity about what level of Iranian nuclear capability the world can live with, subject to intrusive external monitoring to verify Tehran is not running a weapons programme. Otherwise, there will be nothing to negotiate.

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