Britain can lead a new diplomatic effort on Iran

With Hassan Rouhani's recent election, it is entirely possible that Britain could lead the way in terms of a diplomatic settlement to Iran's nuclear programme, argues John Watts

Rouhani supporters perform 'peace' gestures for the cameras
John Watts
On 1 July 2013 12:09

On the 15th June Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s Presidential election with over 50 percent of the vote, vowing to “enhance mutual trust between Iran and other countries”. Two days later, Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons that we must judge Dr Rouhani according to his “actions not words” and only “respond in good faith to changes in policy if they happen”.

Mr Hague is right not to let easy optimism cloud the reality of the progress being made by Iran’s nuclear programme. However, because the potential consequences of failing to reach a negotiated settlement are so grave, he should consider taking a more proactive stance. This would demonstrate Britain’s willingness to reengage while reformist sentiment in Iran is still widespread and hopeful.

What are the potential consequences of a failure to reach a negotiated settlement regarding Iran’s nuclear programme? If diplomacy fails to stop Iran’s suspected progress towards creating a nuclear weapon then it is far from certain that anything else will succeed.

Iran has continued to produce highly enriched uranium despite new and deeper rounds of economic sanctions. It is also unclear that an Israeli military strike would in fact cause lasting damage to Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran’s key sites are well defended, such as the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, which is protected by up to 90 metres of rock. Last year, the Pentagon estimated that an Israeli strike would delay Iran’s nuclear programme by just one year, and furthermore, that an inconclusive attack could redouble Tehran’s determination.

Regardless of whether such an attack would destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, its wider consequences could be catastrophic. It is feared that Iran would retaliate against US forces in the Persian Gulf regardless of whether America played a direct role in an attack against it.

Given that the US has major bases in countries from Kuwait and Qatar to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, such retaliation could engulf the entire region in conflict. Even if Iran did not retaliate conventionally, it would renew its efforts to support anti-Western fighters in countries from Lebanon and Syria to Afghanistan, while seeking to increase its influence over the Shia government of Iraq.

Iran has also threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes nearly 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil trade, should it come under attack. The United States has the military power to roll back any such attempt, but the impact upon world oil prices would still be profound. Estimates as to the impact of blockade upon oil prices typically range from an increase of $20 per barrel to a jump of 50 per cent, indicating that even a short-term blockade would have damaging implications for the fragile global economy.

So what proactive steps could Mr Hague take so as to try and avert outcomes such as these?

Conciliatory steps, if taken too readily, could put at risk the credibility of Britain’s resolve. Mr Hague understands this. For example, he realises that it would be rash to request that Britain reopen its embassy in Tehran before the Iranian Government gives credible assurances that its security will not be threatened, as was the case in 2011 when it was overrun by a mob with suspected state backing.

But rather than wait for these assurances to be forthcoming, the Foreign Office should make renewed efforts to actively obtain them. Britain would then be able to allow Iran to reopen its embassy in London.

Similarly, Britain could re-energise plans for a conference in Helsinki aiming at establishing a nuclear weapon free Middle East, which was originally scheduled for last year. By encouraging Iran to attend, Mr Hague could again generate diplomatic engagement without having to make undue concessions.

The Foreign Office should take a proactive stance by re-vocalising the opportunities open to Iran for political and economic reengagement. This might help foster political and popular Iranian support for a negotiated settlement in advance of Dr Rouhani taking office in under two months time.

Every effort should be made to reach a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis, not out of naïve optimism following the election of a more moderate Iranian President, but for fear of the potential alternatives.

John Watts is a researcher for the Bow Group and author of the paper 'Iran's nuclear programme - the importance of diplomatic re-engagement'.

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