By David Patrikarakos

In August the press officer of an Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahideen, summoned reporters and TV crews to a news conference in Washington with the promise to reveal explosive information on Iran's nuclear programme. There were fears that not many would turn up, given the group's reputation for peddling exaggerated or plainly false information. But what Alireza Jafarzadeh had to reveal was indeed dynamite: full details of a hitherto secret uranium enrichment site at Natanz and the construction of a heavy water plant at Arak, which would enable the production of plutonium. None of what Iran was doing was, in the strictest sense, illegal. But it proved beyond doubt that Iran was determined to master the nuclear fuel cycle which would in turn open the way for it to become a nuclear weapons power, if it so desired.

Ever since then Iran has been in almost constant conflict with the international community -- represented by the UN Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency and several leading powers which are conducting negotiations with it -- over its right to enrich uranium. Iran refuses to give up enrichment 'at any price' while the coalition (in its current form, the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, known as the P5+1) insists it must cease or slow enrichment down.

We are at a stalemate. Iran is suffering crippling sanctions, under constant threat of air attack by Israel, and wary of US cyber attacks to sabotage the centrifuges which enrich uranium. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, now openly intervenes in the US presidential election on behalf of the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, whose rhetoric against Iran chimes with his own. It is worth asking, how did we slide into this stand-off? And are there any lessons for the future?

The Iranian nuclear crisis is, in many ways, the story of missed opportunities borne of bad timing and diplomatic failure.

Perhaps the best chances to resolve the crisis came in 2003, shortly after it began. The Iranians were scared: they had just seen Washington topple Saddam Hussein and the geopolitical picture looked bleak. Since the Gulf War of 1991 the US has had a strong military presence in the Middle East, with bases in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, and its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The 2001 war in Afghanistan had seen huge numbers of American troops gathered on Iran's eastern border, while Saddam's overthrow saw yet more US troops massed on its western border. With US forces also in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Washington had encircled Iran on its own continent and talked openly of 'regime change'.

In May 2003, Iran reportedly presented the US with a 'package' of proposals, in which it offered to end support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups, to help to stabilize Iraq after the US-led invasion and to make its nuclear programme more transparent. In return, Tehran asked Washington to end its hostility, to end sanctions, and to disband the People's Mujahideen opposition group and repatriate its members.

The offer was prepared in Tehran by Iran's Ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, and reportedly came in an unsigned letter, passed via the Swiss Ambassador, Tim Guldimann, in Tehran. The letter was passed both to the State Department, where Guldimann briefed officials on his conversations with the Iranians, and to Republican Congressman, Robert Ney of Ohio, who passed it on to President Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove. The offer caused immediate controversy. Some, like John Bolton, the Under-Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, thought the offer was nonsense and argued that the Swiss be informed that their ambassador in Tehran was 'fantasizing' and should be removed from his post. The US State Department was keen to discuss it but was over-ruled by Vice-President Dick Cheney's office: 'We don't negotiate with evil' was its response.

As reported, the proposed deal offered a real chance of resolving both the narrower problem of Iran's nuclear programme and the wider problem of relations between Iran and the West that has existed since the coming of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and of which the nuclear crisis is the most overt sign. To dismiss the offer out of hand must go down as a colossal act of short sightedness bordering on the negligent.

Iranian fears remained, however, and talks between Iran and several European countries culminated in a visit to Tehran by the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany to discuss Iran's enrichment of uranium -- a possible path to a nuclear bomb if the uranium is enriched to weapons-grade levels: 80 per cent or above. Once again, the unspoken prospect of US military intervention dominated the proceedings. The Iranians knew that if negotiations collapsed there would be security consequences. At the end of rather fraught talks in Tehran on October 21, 2003, they accepted the principle of a suspension of uranium enrichment while wider nego-tiations on the overall nuclear file and Iran's relations with the West took place.

Both sides considered the talks a success: Iran had closed off the possibility of a US military attack and the Europeans had stopped Iran making further advances in nuclear enrichment. But once more an opportunity to reach a compromise was missed. To the Iranians, suspension may only have been temporary to allow for broader nuclear negotiations to progress, but for the Europeans, according to participants I have spoken to, there was no hurry to reach a permanent agreement. After two years of suspension, Iran re-started enrichment in January 2006. It has refused to countenance another suspension ever since.

That decision was indicative of two developments: with the US mired in Iraq, Iranian fears of military attack had abated; and the 2005 election of the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's new president heralded a far more intransigent nuclear policy.

Ahmadinejad's election was catastrophically ill-timed, coming as it did with the arrival of Condoleezza Rice and Nick Burns at the US State Department. Both believed that 30 years of not talking to Iran had achieved nothing and so, on June 1, 2006, Rice offered the Iranians face-to-face talks.

The Americans extracted a promise from Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, to meet at the September 2006 UN General Assembly. Burns and Rice waited in New York for Larijani to arrive but he failed to show -- probably under pressure from Ahmadinejad who now had no desire to reciprocate US overtures.

Still the Americans tried. In June 2007, just before the G8 Summit in Germany, contacts were made with the Iranians to try to arrange the long-awaited talks. The venue would be the UN General Assembly, and the meeting would be minutely choreographed. But only one Iranian arrived in New York and it was not Larijani but Ahmadinejad, who had once again won the argument in Tehran -- there would be no meeting with the 'Great Satan'.

Two years later the Americans finally got their meeting, on October 1, 2009, William J. Burns, the US Under Secretary of State, met with Said Jalili, who had replaced Larijani, on a cold morning in Geneva. Suspension of enrichment was no longer on the table and international attention now focused on Iran's stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium, which might provide the raw material for a bomb if further enriched to suitably high levels.

The plan was to get Iran to ship its stockpile abroad in return for a corresponding amount of the nuclear fuel it wanted. The Americans were working on the belief that an Iranian commitment to do this had been agreed via the Russians earlier in the year. And they were hopeful, given the country's internal problems, that the regime and the President personally would welcome the chance to alleviate some of the pressure on themselves. In the June 2009 Presidential elections, Ahmadinejad had won despite allegations of fraud which prompted huge protests around Iran and caused an international outcry. The Americans were right: this time Ahmadinejad needed the US; he was keen on the deal and shortly after the meeting described it as a 'great victory'. But now internal Iranian politics intervened: all his political enemies lined up to prevent Ahmadinejad scoring a political victory and rejected the deal. Iran backtracked and claimed no promise had ever been made.

After a second meeting in Geneva shortly after the first, the Iranians barely met with the six-country coalition, known as the P5+1, until this year. Sanctions brought the Iranians back to the table and since April they have met three times -- in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow -- with talks yielding little.

The P5+1 is now apparently content to let sanctions pressure pile on Iran, while the Iranians, generally divided at the political level, seem agreed on the need for a nuclear programme and, critically, on continuing uranium enrichment.

Since 2003, the Iranians have worked to a simple plan: stall negotiations and continue with enrichment. They have, moreover, turned the single 'red line' that had once existed on uranium enrichment into a series of thin pink lines, push-ing ever onwards with nuclear activities, calculating that at each new technological barrier they break through, the P5+1 may express displeasure but will not take decisive action.

So what can stop them? If the mullahs are forced to choose between the survival of the regime and the survival of the nuclear programme they will choose the regime. An all-out US invasion of Iran seems unlikely: there is no appetite for war in Washington and the Iranians know it; conservative newspapers such as Kayhan crow about Washington's inability to hurt Iran.

Israeli strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities are a more realistic prospect, but they would not threaten the regime's survival. Indeed, it is quite possible that military strikes would have the reverse effect and see Iranians otherwise hostile to the mullahs rally to the regime's cause in the face of external attack. And any strike would at best only delay the nuclear programme.

Set against this would be the fallout -- with Iran launching missiles at Israel, stirring up trouble for the US in Afghan-istan and Iraq, and possibly closing the Straits of Hormuz through which 20 per cent of the world's oil passes.

Perhaps the P5+1's most effective tool is sanctions. Oil and banking sanctions are hitting the Iranian economy hard. Food inflation is at 50 per cent and unemployment heading toward 20 per cent; the price Iran is paying for continuing to enrich uranium now rises by the day.

History shows that Iran compromises when it feels frightened or its leaders are politically weak. The regime is now more vulnerable than at any other time since 2003, which may yet afford another opportunity to make the Iranians listen -- this time it must be grasped or we will face, at the very least, another ten years of crisis.

David Patrikarakos is author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State (I. B. Tauris)


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