GENEVA - There was not much excitement here yesterday as the talks took place around a table in an 18th-century villa outside the city, wherein representatives of Iran sat with representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. The city of reformist Protestant preacher John Calvin has already been the site of dozens of peace conferences and conventions, which have attempted to bring about a restriction of conventional or nuclear weapons; events that in their day were described as "historic" and "decisive," but which led up to additional confrontations, conflicts and wars.
The talks really are important. This is the first time in many years that senior representatives of the U.S. administration are openly meeting for talks with senior representatives of Iran - and not only in a multilateral framework, but in private talks as well. That is no small matter. Up until nine months ago the previous administration refused to talk to Iran, and the only language used encompassed threats to impose additional sanctions and hints about a military attack.
This change of course was brought about by U.S. President Barack Obama, who declared his willingness to talk to Iran in the hope that it would agree to postpone enriching uranium. Obama changed his country's policy, without preconditions, but thus far Iran has not responded with a gesture of its own. On the contrary, the victory of the extremists in the most recent elections headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the suppression of the opposition and the strengthening of the status of the Revolutionary Guards do not bode well for anyone looking for moderation and compromises from Tehran.
But in the balance lie not only political disputes and contradictory interests, but historical grudges and cultural gaps as well. The United States and its partners in the European Union have clear issues they want to discuss with Iran: its nuclear program and curbing its support for extremist organizations in the Middle East, first and foremost Hezbollah and Hamas. But Iran, which in previous centuries was exploited and humiliated by great powers, now wants something else, something more abstract. Iran wants to be respected, to have its status recognized, to have everyone understand that it considers itself the successor of an ancient civilization. But even if it receives from the United States and the Western countries the amount of respect it is convinced it deserves, and a full appreciation of its history, this will not be sufficient to solve the crisis.
The roots of the crisis are political. Through its behavior over the past 25 years, Iran has been proving that it is stubbornly and unremittingly trying to achieve military nuclear capability - and that it is willing to take risks. It is possible that Iran will not assemble the bomb and will make do with "nuclear vagueness," but it is clearly doing everything possible - using deception, cunning and denial - in order to achieve the capability that will enable it, if it so desires, to possess nuclear weapons. Iran is not far from its goal; it's a matter of a few more months, or maybe a year to a year and a half. Iran has apparently made a strategic decision to march down the nuclear path at any price.
During the past five years, it has often been said that the international community is giving Iran a "last chance." But this time, the feeling is that this really is the last chance. If Iran agrees to a compromise, the world, and mainly Israel, will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Such a compromise has already been proposed in the past: Iran will enrich a small and symbolic amount of uranium on its own territory, and will receive the rest of its needs from Russia or France, who will make sure uranium will be used there for only declared peaceful purposes and not for nuclear weapons.
The talks ended with a decision to conduct another round later this month, which means neither side is interested in torpedoing the dialogue. But the extent to which Iran is willing to stop enriching uranium remains unclear. If it refuses, the number of options for the United States and Israel will be narrowed down to two, each of them difficult. Ostensibly there is a third option: A failure of the talks will lead the United States and Europe to impose tougher sanctions against Iran. But that is not a realistic option, nor will it help. The Iranian leadership has already proven that punishment will not deter it. Moreover, Russia and China will apparently continue to reject any decision that attempts to impose tough sanctions against Iran, especially those aimed at harming its soft underbelly: the oil industry, which is Iran's largest source of revenue.
Therefore, in case of failure in Geneva, one of two options will remain: a military operation to cause interference and delay, and perhaps to prevent Iran entirely from possessing nuclear weapons; or acceptance of nuclear weapons in the hands of the ayatollahs in Tehran.
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