President Obama's return to the discourse of nuclear disarmament earned him the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009. Earlier that year the recently elected President of the United States went to Prague and sounded a clarion call for a ban on all nuclear testing and a new treaty to end the production of fissile materials intended for nuclear weapons. Four years has passed and the Prague promise seems to have been forgotten. In reaction to a U.S. nuclear test on December 5, the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs addressed President Obama with these words: "Your administration seeks non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. But your position of urging others to renounce nuclear weapons, while continuing your own nuclear tests, does not stand to reason."
Joining Japan in that objection was the Islamic Republic of Iran. After ten years of unsuccessful efforts and the prospects of yet another round of negotiations between Iran and P5+1 (five permanent members of UN plus Germany) one wonders if this is the right time for such negotiations. The truth is that the time is ripe enough given the political flux of the region. Let us remember that in 2008 the Obama administration delayed negotiating with Iran lest the resolution of the problem give Mr. Ahmadinejad a boost in his bid for reelection in 2009. But the Iranian elections went badly and the ensuing unrest consumed the remainder of that year. Now, we are back at the same point of the cycle between American and Iranian elections while things on the ground have deteriorated. There is more distrust, more fissile materials and less hope of defusing this volatile issue.
Given the synergy of inaction and the vested political interests on both sides there is only one way to break this logjam: with a hard push from both sides. The Iranian chief negotiator Hossein Mousavian has allowed a rare look at the issue from his side of the negotiating table in his recently published The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir. The supreme leader of Iran who controls the country's foreign policy is notoriously uneasy about the intentions of the United States and the shrewdness of the wily American negotiators. The occasionally shifting goalposts of Europe and the U.S. in these negotiations have not helped cure that paranoia.
Despite the apparent intractability of the problem of Iranian nuclear challenge there is not much disagreement about the contours of the required compromise: Iran's rights under the international law and the articles of the NPT must be recognized while assurances and a water tight regime of inspections must be established to ensure Iran does not use its fissile materials for military purposes. The reason that after ten years this simple formula has not been implemented is the lack of trust on both sides and hence, the much touted trope of "confidence building measures."
Weary of offering any more compromises, Iran will be hard-pressed to show good will again. To pass muster in Iran, any such gesture requires a similar measure from the American side. In the meanwhile, the American politicians can ill afford the appearance of compromising with Iran in the equally galvanized American political scene.
President Obama is in a unique position to break the impasse without even seeming to try. By returning to the issue of nuclear disarmament of the outset of his presidency, Mr. Obama will appear to meet Iran halfway without investing any political capital. Such a call would be addressed to the nuclear powers but it shall be construed as an unmistakable nod to Iran and other non-nuclear countries.
Predicated on a campaign for nuclear disarmament, the non-proliferation agenda will finally find its moral center and logical legs. Such a move will erase the unappealing image of a group of world powers with a history of military and political use of nuclear weapons admonishing other countries to do as say, not as they do.
A breakthrough with Iran will be feather in the cap of President Obama's second term. But taking positive steps toward global nuclear disarmament will be the crown jewel of his legacy.