In his play, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare makes Brutus declaim: "There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune..." This oft-quoted insight of Shakespeare applies with equal validity to the ongoing Iran-P5+1 talks, which came tantalizingly close to a resolution after a decade long impasse. The talks will be resumed in ten days at a lower level which means that it will be virtually impossible to recreate the momentum and the breathless expectation of success that was palpable in the Geneva air a couple of days ago.
It would be unrealistic to expect mid-level interlocutors to pull the rabbit out of the hat, a feat that their ministers failed to accomplish. While the commentariat will be in full flow on the whys and wherefores of arguably the most crucial diplomatic negotiation of 2013, I would like to focus on the format: on the one side are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (all holders of a large number of nuclear weapons) plus Germany and on the other side is Iran. There is an obvious imbalance in effectuating a nuclear compromise between the Gang of six and Iran. Simply put, too many cooks are spoiling the broth. Javad Zarif, foreign minister of Iran, pointed to France as a major reason why the deal was scuppered. According to the New York Times, France objected to the deal on the grounds that it would "do little to curb Iran's uranium enrichment or to stop the development of a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium."
One is of course not privy to the nitty gritty of the negotiations, where the two sides have a wide gulf of mutual suspicion to overcome. However, Iran's right to enrich uranium under appropriate International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards is permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a member. Estimates of what does or does not constitute excessive levels of uranium enrichment are best left to the technical expertise of the IAEA rather than the subjective proclivities of the P5+1.
For background, it might be useful to recapitulate that under the provisions on the 1968 NPT, the nuclear weapons wielding powers should have dismantled their nuclear arsenals a long time ago. That they have not done so and got away with their tardiness reeks of double standards. Thus the nuclear caste system continues. The P5, who are the nuclear Brahmins, can therefore hardly claim the high moral ground in this case.
As already pointed out by some knowledgeable observers, the chances of a successful nuclear deal will be increased if the P5+1 format is eventually replaced by a bilateral U.S. versus Iran negotiation. This is not to devalue the role and importance of the European Union countries, but merely to recommend that the negotiations evolve toward a more realistic format unencumbered by the difficult task of harmonizing the views of the six interlocutors. Presumably, any one of them can veto the process, which makes agreement on an admittedly complex issue even more intractable.
At this stage of the proceedings, the United States should maintain behind the scenes contacts with Tehran. There is nothing to prevent even estranged nations, such as the U.S. and Iran from engaging in back channel diplomacy. Let us not forget that it was precisely the productive use of this mechanism (with the good offices of Pakistan), which engendered Nixon's historic opening to China.
S.Azmat Hassan, an adjunct professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, is a former career diplomat for Pakistan. Among his diplomatic assignments, he was also Ambassador for Pakistan to Syria, Malaysia, and Morocco.