While UN nuclear inspectors report “good progress” on their “work plan” to clear up suspicions about Iran's past nuclear activities, the United States has been deliberately undermining Russian diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
Meanwhile, urged on by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian government seems to be edging closer to a climbdown over its nuclear programme.
Iranians for peace
On 18 November, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, made a rare public criticism of her government's nuclear policy, despite the fact that president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a week earlier described anyone opposing his stance as a “traitor”.
Ebadi urged her government to conform to UN Security Council resolutions, and to suspend the enrichment of uranium.
While nuclear energy was “every nation's right”, Iranians “should not insist so hard on one right so that we lose all other rights in one go,” said the former judge, referring to the rights to “security, peace and welfare” which might be lost in war.
She called for the creation of a “national peace campaign” to enable the Iranian people to say “what they want”, and to “show the world that Iranians are peaceseekers.”
The nuclear crisis has two components: suspicions about Iran's past nuclear activities, and fears as to how Tehran might use its enrichment facilities in the future.
On the first track, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been pursuing a thorough “work plan” investigating Iran's past activities.
IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei reported on 22 November that there had been “good progress” on clearing up questions relating to Iran's centrifuge programme (one of the two major problem areas).
There had also been “an increased level of cooperation” from Tehran (though it was not yet “pro-active”).
ElBaradei called for greater efforts from Iran to enable the IAEA to conclude its investigation by the end of the year.
One way out
As for the future, if Iran were to expel IAEA inspectors, it could use its growing enrichment capacity (currently 3,000 centrifuges - though operating below capacity) to create weapons-grade uranium. (See the JNV supplement inside this issue for an explanation.)
A number of countries have been attempting to persuade Iran to give up enriching uranium itself, and to import nuclear fuel from another country. This would prevent Iran from being able to produce weapons-grade uranium.
A promising effort came from Russia in mid-October, we learned from the Guardian on 13 November. Russian president Vladimir Putin travelled to Tehran for a face-to-face meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and offered to enrich Iran's uranium on Russian soil.
Putin, who had gained Bush's agreement beforehand, also informed the most powerful man in Iran that Washington was prepared to enter into direct and comprehensive negotiations if Iran suspended uranium enrichment.
Khamenei asked for time to consider the offer, but then, barely a week later (without consulting Moscow), the US imposed unilateral financial sanctions on three Iranian banks, on the Iranian ministry of defence, and on the Revolutionary Guard.
The Russian proposal was in tatters. In response to Moscow's anger, British and US officials pointed out that the Russian offer was already in trouble after the resignation on 20 October of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ari Larijani, and his replacement by the more hardline Saeed Jalili.
However, this does not explain why, when hardliners were already gaining influence, the US chose to strengthen their hand with the harshest sanctions yet imposed, dooming Putin's initiative.
Sign of hope
Despite US sabotage, Tehran may be inching towards this kind of solution.
Saudi Arabia and the five other Arab members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have also suggested that Iran give up enriching uranium on its own soil, and acquire nuclear fuel from elsewhere - but from a neutral third party, such as Switzerland.
On 18 November, President Ahmadinejad responded: “We will be talking with our [Arab] friends” about the scheme.
It is possible that by the end of the year the IAEA will declare Iran “clean” in terms of its past nuclear activities, and the Iranian government will suspend and close down its own enrichment facilities, denying itself such dangerous technology in the future.
If the IAEA and the GCC are to make progress, they will require diplomatic support, not threats and sabotage.