From Iran to Syria: diplomacy, not war, can bear fruit

Recent flurry of international meetings have advanced cooperation between countries more than threats of war.

Talks between US and Russia led to Syria agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons [AP]

As the world anticipates the resumption of talks in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear programme, the commentariat jury is out on how to assess progress so far. A deal seemed imminent between Iran, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany – the so-called P5+1. But at the last minute a spanner was thrown into the works, preventing its finalisation.

The response to this has been mixed – varying from gloomy disappointment through cynical “told you so”, to relief and jubilation. But however the interim outcome is read, the reality is that this unfinished round of talks is not yet over, and that the situation we are currently in with Iran is an advancement on all previous positions over the past three decades.

And what’s more, while the main spotlight has been on Geneva, a very significant sideshow has been taking place in Tehran. Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), signed a cooperation framework agreement with Iranian Vice-President Ali Akbar Salehi, over transparency and verification regarding Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Details of such agreements may make less interesting copy than the international talks with the stars of the global political circuit. But with a matter of this importance, the devil is truly in the details. Initial practical measures agreed by Iran, to be taken within three months, are to provide relevant information, clarification and/or managed access to the Gchine Mine in Bandar Abbas, the Heavy Water Production Plant, all new research reactors, 16 sites designated for the construction of nuclear power plants, additional enrichment facilities, and laser enrichment technology.

If the political will genuinely exists, then the bigger deal can also be made too.

These are precisely the nuts and bolts that will lead to the effective construction of openness and trust between Iran and those genuinely concerned about its nuclear programme. And if the political will genuinely exists, then the bigger deal can also be made too.

We have seen in recent weeks just how much can be achieved – and how rapidly – when political obstacles are removed. Just two weeks after a vote in the British parliament derailed a United States attack on Syria, the US and Russia were signing an agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. It took just three days of talks in Geneva, between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, to arrive at that agreement.

Contrary to the expectations of many, Damascus then submitted its inventory on time and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) entered Syria on October 1. By mid-October, Syria had joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and by the end of the month, the OPCW confirmed that Syria’s declared equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons had been destroyed. Now the process of destroying the weapons themselves is under way, due to be completed in the first half of 2014.

Equally significant and even less expected, are the reports that Israel participated in talks in Switzerland last month, with other states from the region – including Iran – about convening a conference on making the Middle East a weapons of mass destruction-free zone. For decades there have been resolutions from the United Nations calling for such a zone to be established, primarily amid concerns about Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Recent attempts to get the initiative off the starting blocks, led by Finland on behalf of the UN, foundered in the face of Israeli refusal to participate in a regional conference to discuss a WMD-free zone. So the news of the meeting, described by an Israeli official in Jerusalem as a “preparatory session, of sorts” for the planned Middle East conference, is a significant breakthrough. It is hard to see how it would have come about without the recent diplomatic advances – serious engagement with Iran, and Syria’s sign-up to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

So international dialogue and diplomacy can bear fruit. And what these developments also show, is the crucial importance – frequently talked down – of UN treaty frameworks and their legal, monitoring and policing structures. These are provided to facilitate and enable the many small and detailed steps that are necessary to resolve complex problems and avoid conflict. Without the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW, bringing Syria to the disarmament table in a matter of days would have been impossible. And the painstaking work of the IAEA will doubtless play a crucial role in the eventual resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.

Much has been achieved in recent weeks and the world is now waiting for a successful outcome. Let us hope that when talks resume in Geneva, spanners are left at home.  

Dr Kate Hudson is general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner.