Time to return to talks table

Updated: 2013-01-19 07:56

By Wang Hui (China Daily)

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Teheran's ban on nuclear arms and IAEA's efforts have created right atmosphere for P5+1 to resume negotiations with Iran

Talks between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran concluded on Thursday in Teheran without reaching a much-hoped-for deal. But the two sides have agreed to meet again on Feb 12.

On the eve of IAEA experts' arrival, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on Tuesday that a religious decree, issued earlier by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on nuclear weapons ban is binding on the Islamic republic. He also said Iran is ready to register it as an "international document".

These parallel efforts are positive developments in the long-standing Iranian nuclear issue, thanks mainly to the IAEA and Iran both showing greater interest in engaging with each other.

Iran's latest stance on banning nuclear weapons should be welcomed, not least because it could help ease the long simmering tension between the Islamic republic and the West.

The relevant countries - in fact, the whole international community - should build on this good momentum so that the stalled negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group could resume later this month. The P5+1 comprises permanent UN Security Council members China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany.

Earlier this month, media reports had said the talks were likely to be resumed in January. But the group has not yet decided on the date and place.

Iran's standoff with the West over its nuclear program started about a decade ago. The West has accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons under the cover of civilian nuclear program, but Teheran has been vehemently denying the allegation.

Despite the international community's efforts in recent years to draw the relevant parties to the negotiating table, nothing much has changed. There has been little sign of an end to the stalemate. Instead, the hostility and acrimony between Iran and the US-led West have deepened, which in turn have heightened tensions in the Middle East.

The US and its European allies imposed crippling sanctions on Iran last year but still could not achieve a breakthrough in the issue. Three rounds of negotiations between P5+1 and Iran were held last year, the first in Istanbul in April, the second in Baghdad in May and the last in Moscow in June, without yielding any substantial result because Iran rejected the group's calls to curb its nuclear enrichment program and demanded easing of the sanctions.

In the meantime, the US-led West has tightened its grip on Iran's oil exports and threatened Teheran with military attacks. But Teheran has not yielded to the mounting pressure from the West.

In August 2012, Iran hosted the Non-Aligned Movement summit, in which representatives of 120 member states, including 30 heads of state or government, participated. The NAM summit shattered the US' belief that Iran had been isolated from the international community.

In response to the US' actions and covert threats, Iranian air and land forces held several military exercises and tested advanced missiles last year. Also, Iran has thrown its weight behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and greatly improved its ties with Egypt. These countermeasures are bound to have an impact on the countries in the region.

More than six months have passed since the last talks were held between P5+1 and Iran without achieving a breakthrough. But the recent developments have increased the chances of a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. In fact, this week's IAEA-Iran talks and Iran's latest stance on banning nuclear weapons have created the right environment for the resumption of the talks between P5+1 and Iran.

But to keep the diplomatic process rolling, the West has to show flexibility and view the Iranian nuclear issue from a regional perspective. The Syrian crisis, Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iranian nuclear issue and the instability in Iraq and Libya have taken a heavy toll on the Middle East economy and people. So even if there is the slightest chance of resolving any of these issues, the international community should seize it to restore peace in the region.

Indeed, the P5+1-Iran framework can pave the way for a comprehensive, just and proper resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue.

US President Barack Obama will be sworn in as US president on Jan 21, and a new round of talks between P5+1 and Iran could be a starting point for him to test his foreign policy in his second term. Since his hard-line policy toward Teheran during his first term failed to yield any fruitful result, it is high time he changed his policy and showed some flexibility to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Of course, Teheran has to do more to convince the rest of the world that it is not developing a nuclear weapon. But the international community should respect Iran's right to peaceful use of nuclear technology. And to usher in a new era of engagement, the relevant countries should sincerely try to make some headway to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue this year.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail: wanghui@ chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 01/19/2013 page5)