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A new round of talks on the Iranian nuclear issue between the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany (G5+1) and Iran will start in January, which will be the first such meeting after the re-election of Barack Obama as US president.
No progress has been made since the last round in June because of the US presidential election and the new sanctions imposed on Iran by the US and its European allies despite the occasional expert-level contacts.
After Obama's re-election, all parties appear eager to hold the talks thanks to the mediating efforts of the European Union, Russia and China. Though no side seems to have high expectations, the talks are significant because the main parties, the US and Iran, are faced with complicated domestic and international situations.
For Iran, last year was one of unprecedented Western sanctions, which have caused a sharp decline in its oil and gas exports and therefore revenue, and depreciated its currency. More importantly, the sanctions have hit Iranian people hard, leading to frequent protests and even triggering riots.
More Iranians are complaining against the poor performance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in dealing with economic and diplomatic issues. And more Iranians have begun doubting the benefits of using nuclear energy for such a high price. They hope the government would adopt more flexible tactics and help create a friendlier international environment for Iran's economic and social development.
But despite the international pressure and the slight change in domestic views, the technical breakthroughs Teheran claims to have made in its nuclear program will give the Iranian government more room to reach a compromise. That's why Ahmadinejad's recent call for all parties to take a collaborative stance to resolve the issue should be seen as good news.
For the US, the Iranian nuclear issue is a diplomatic priority, with Obama's re-election making the US policy toward Iran more predictable. Although Israel could later force the US to change its stance, Obama now has more freedom to devise a policy toward Iran, which would basically focus on sanctions and negotiations, to avoid a war.
A new development is that Democrats and Republicans both are trying to find new ways to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. For example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, US strategist and national security adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter, recently suggested the US and Iran hold direct talks.
It was followed by a report by 38 senior US scholars, former political heavyweights and retired generals submitted to Obama, which said an "action-to-action" principle should be adopted to urge Iran, rather than only imposing sanctions, to resolve the nuclear issue. Though the sanctions have hit the Iranian economy, the report said, the US also has paid a great economic and diplomatic price. Moreover, sanctions have made common Iranians more hostile toward the US and Israel, and undermined Iranian pro-reform forces.
There are enough indications to suggest that Americans have begun to seek a more realistic and pragmatic policy toward Iran. And the January talks will be an important occasion to see whether the Obama administration is indeed reviewing its Iran policy, especially if Iran gives signals for reaching a compromise.
As for the EU, it needs to keep pace with the US politically and diplomatically on its policy toward Iran, though it faces more potential security risks and direct economic loss because of the Iranian nuclear issue.
Since the EU would be dealt a big blow if another war breaks out in the Middle East, it is most eager to seek a peaceful resolution to the issue. But by following the US, it is losing the chance to take diplomatic initiatives.
Moreover, the lingering debt crisis and the sluggish economy is making it difficult for the EU to take a unified stance. European enterprises have been complaining that the sanctions have allowed companies from other parts of the world to benefit from the Iranian market at their cost, and some European scholars have criticized the US' double standard over the Iranian and Israeli nuclear issues.
The actions of Russia and China are basically based on international law and are aimed at maintaining nuclear non-proliferation. As permanent Security Council members, the two countries have played constructive roles in trying to help all sides reach a common ground to resolve the issue, though they have made it clear to Iran that it should not develop nuclear weapons.
China has intensified its diplomatic mediation apart from supporting Russia's stance, reflecting its eagerness to shoulder more international responsibilities. But China should make more efforts to resolve the issue peacefully by proposing more concrete and tactical ideas.
The G5+1 meeting with Iran is in line with the spirit of multilateralism, which can be strengthened through deeper coordination and cooperation. The six countries should give priority to maintaining nuclear non-proliferation and regional stability over their national interests, for which they have to make full use of the talks with Iran.
It is important that the meeting is held under the principle of mutual respect and reciprocity, which should form the basis of future talks too. So far the US, EU and Security Council sanctions haven't helped create such a situation, though.
It is equally important that all parties be ready for some sort of a compromise to resolve the issue peacefully rather than trying to exploit the political situations in other countries.
Besides, the multilateral platform should try to create a situation in which the US and Iran would establish bilateral contacts. Also, Western countries should give up their unrealistic demands to resolve the issue in their way and Iran can hardly afford the consequences of a misjudgment.
The meeting will be a now-or-never moment for the US and Iran. It's time political leaders in the two countries showed sincere determination and diplomatic wisdom to resolve an issue that has been hanging as a security threat over the world.
The author is vice-chairman of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.