Lord Lamont is a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the unpaid Chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce
Just occasionally one feels that one may be witnessing history in the making. President Rouhani’s visit and speech to the UN could represent a fundamental change in relations between the West and Iran. On the other hand, it could be yet another missed opportunity.
After the Iranian PR offensive – the Jewish New Year greetings, the denial of Holocaust denial – it would have been impossible for President Rouhani’s speech to have lived up to expectations. This was not the second coming of the Messiah. In the event, the President’s speech was partly addressed to hardliners in Tehran and Obama’s speech was the more conciliatory.
Are the Iranians for real this time? The message to the public was “let’s make a deal quickly; we are different from Ahmadinejad; we are not a threat to anyone; it can be win-win; we don’t want just to settle this issue, but also to improve relations generally”. Significantly, after the meeting of Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary Kerry, together with European foreign ministers, the briefing from the Americans was that this was a completely different and surprising Iranian approach – something quite new. Even William Hague, whose reaction to the Rouhani speech had been somewhat grudging, sounded positive. Last night, we had the dramatic news of President Obamas telephone conversation with President Rouhani. Now that is a truly historic moment, and shows America is taking the Iranian overtures seriously.
The hardliners on both sides increasingly resemble each other. They could still sabotage any attempt at reconciliation. In Tehran, conservatives’ websites are sniping at President Rouhani for “walking into a trap”. The US Congress, with exquisite timing, passed a bill proposing a complete embargo on Iran just as he took office. Even now, Senator Graham is preparing a bill to permit war against Iran.
Of course, it is right to be cautious. People justly point to the appalling human rights abuses, the bloody episodes in the history of the Islamic Republic and the hateful rhetoric of the former President Ahmadinejad against Israel.
But Iran is too an important a country to be ignored or locked in a cupboard. We have to live with Iran and have to deal with it – just as the US decided it had to deal with China.
The Iranian nuclear issue is too dangerous to be left unresolved. A military strike against Iran would run the risk of setting the whole Middle East alight. Worse still, it would almost certainly not eliminate the Iran nuclear programme, but would impel them to weaponise it.
Yes, sanctions have indirectly helped to bring Iran to a more reasonable position. Voters in Iran demanded an improvement in relations with the West so as to ease the economic stress. But there is plenty of resentment against the West because of sanctions. It would be a bad mistake to believe that a further tightening of the screw would either collapse the regime or force it to surrender. If anything, the siege economy strengthens the regime.
Henry Kissinger once said that he wished Iran could behave more like a state and less like a cause. The signs are that many people in the country and the regime want Iran to be a normal country. Yes, there are still radical thugs, but there are also pragmatists and reformists. Once before in 2001 and 2003, when the reformists last had the upper hand in Iranian politics, the West gave them a cold shoulder, and many people have regretted it ever since. In 2003, the Iranians offered the West a nuclear deal that it would certainly grab today.
There are countries in the Middle East that, for their own political reasons, will do anything to prevent a settlement with Iran. Some Gulf States play up the Iranian threat so as to put themselves forward as indispensable allies of the United States. The citizens of these same states fund the West’s enemies in the form of Al Qaeda affiliates.
For Israel, the fears are more understandable. But even Ehud Barak has said the Iran is not and cannot be an “existential threat” to Israel. Iran is a weak country militarily, whose entire air force could quickly be wiped out by that of Abu Dhabi.
The outline of a settlement of the nuclear issue is known already and attainable: a combination of shipping out some stocks of uranium, limiting the number of centrifuges, capping the level of enrichment and, at the same time, insisting Iran accepts much more intrusive inspections. But the West will have to recognise Iran’s insistence on self-sufficiency in the fuel cycle. Closing Fordow, or the whole nuclear programme, is a non-starter.
The window for a deal will not remain open indefinitely. President Rouhani has indicated as much. His own position will be undermined if the West drags its feet. A deal with appropriate safeguards is in the interest not just of Iran but also of the West. This is almost certainly the last opportunity to resolve this matter peacefully. It would be a tragedy not to give peace a chance.