Let’s Sit Down and Talk with Iran

As this summer’s temperatures climb, pressure on Iran is heating up. For years now, Iran has claimed that its nuclear program is peaceful and only designed to generate electricity. But the international community has been skeptical.

The United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, all worried about the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, recently took steps to prevent this from happening. But there’s one important route to solving the impasse with Iran that has yet to be seriously pursued: frank diplomatic negotiations at the highest level.

The scenario looks like this: Iran developed a nuclear energy program with United States ‘support over 50 years ago. Their nuclear program isn’t new and hasn’t always been so controversial. But recently, Iran has failed to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an international regulatory body to which Iran had agreed to provide complete and open inspection access to verify the peaceful nature of their nuclear program. When Iran stopped fully cooperating, hiding activities that could be steps towards the development of a nuclear weapon, alarm bells started ringing the world over.

While nobody knows for sure exactly what Iran is up to, nations have been taking action to prevent Iran from acquiring the necessary materials for building a nuclear weapon and to punish them for breaking the rules and hiding things from the IAEA.

The UN Security Council, the EU, and the United States all have recently passed sanctions against Iran, banning sales of industrial items that could be used to build a bomb, freezing bank accounts belonging to people and companies known to be engaging in illegal activities, and preventing foreign investment in industries that could be crucial to building an Iranian nuclear bomb, like mining, oil, and gas.

These sanctions will be a speed bump on Iran’s path towards a nuclear weapon, but what we really need to do is convince them to return to exclusively peaceful nuclear energy usage and cooperation with the international community. Iran was once in good standing with the rest of the world. We need to convince them to stop behaving badly and regain the respect and trust of the rest of the world.

This is where diplomacy plays an important role. All is not lost in the situation with Iran. What’s needed now is a series of long, frank discussions between Iran’s leaders and other key global players.

International leaders–including Iran’s neighbors as well as powerful nations such as the United States, Russia, and China–should make it clear to Iran that there are economic benefits that would follow cooperating with the IAEA and allowing full access of their nuclear facilities to inspectors. Negotiators should join the discussions and be willing to offer Iran concrete advantages in exchange for full cooperation, such as business investment, the lifting of economic sanctions, and money for social programs.

Negotiations would make the stark choice clear to Iran: cooperate, and enjoy the benefits of economic investment and friendly relationships with other nations, or continue to engage in shady behavior and lose investment opportunities and struggle to do business with the rest of the world. Negotiations would make it explicitly clear just how damaging economic isolation would be for Iran.

High-level diplomatic engagement with Iran would benefit both the international community and Iran itself, thwarting a dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons program while also providing opportunities for economic growth and investment. High-level diplomatic engagement is the last, best hope for emerging from the current crisis with Iran on the right path, towards greater global peace and security.

Mary Slosson is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. http://www.armscontrolcenter.org/