IN his state of the union message, devoted largely to domestic issues, Barack Obama touched on Iran’s nuclear question. While the American president pledged to do “what is necessary” to prevent Iran from going nuclear, he asked Tehran to realise “it is time for a diplomatic solution”. This is the second major overture from the US directed at the Iranians in the past few days. Vice President Joe Biden hinted at the option of bilateral talks to break the nuclear deadlock at a security conference in Munich recently. Though Iran rejected that offer, citing continuing US sanctions, which are strangulating its economy, the signals coming from Washington may pave the way for fruitful nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Kazakhstan scheduled for later this month, even though Tehran may have reservations about the parleys.
Offers of talks are always preferable to sabre-rattling. As it is the international community is grappling with another nuclear crisis, with North Korea having tested its latest device despite world condemnation. Of course North Korea and Iran do not fall in the same category. Iran signed the NPT in 1968 and has not denounced it, while Pyongyang renounced the treaty in January 2003. Still, although Iran has consistently denied it is pursuing nuclear weapons, it is difficult to take such statements at face value. After all, Pakistan denied it was pursuing atomic arms for decades before finally going nuclear in 1998. Having said that, the international community has yet to come up with solid evidence confirming that the Iranians are building the bomb. So perhaps the key here for all is to tread carefully. Tehran must be more open about its nuclear programme and allow the IAEA access to all sites where there may be suspicions that a weapons programme is being pursued. The US and its allies, on the other hand, should loosen the harsh sanctions regime which is hurting ordinary Iranians the most. This may convince Tehran that the West seeks to negotiate in good faith. Israel should also be restrained, as the irresponsible war talk coming from Tel Aviv only serves to further poison the atmosphere.