STOCKHOLM -- Slowly but surely, Iran's talks with the international community about its nuclear program are approaching the make-or-break point. But, more important, the outcome could mark a turning point for the wider -- and increasingly volatile -- Middle East.
The rapprochement between Iran and its negotiating partners on the core nuclear issue is obvious. No one at this point seriously believes that Iran is maintaining an active program to develop nuclear weapons, though not long ago it was almost conventional wisdom that the country was close to having them.
Now the focus is on ensuring that Iran would need a year or so to assemble a nuclear device if it ever decided to do so. But the concept of "breakout time" is dubious. If trust were to collapse, and the Iranian regime decided to abrogate all of the relevant international agreements, it is highly likely that it would get its weapon, even if the country itself was bombed repeatedly. The strategic emphasis on "breakout time" is thus misplaced.
The key to progress is to help turn Iran from a cause into a country, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger. Iran needs to focus on developing all of its human and material resources to become part of a region moving from confrontation to cooperation. The deal on the core nuclear issues is central to this approach, but so is a credible process for developing the trade and investment links that will facilitate Iran's move from isolation to integration.
As the talks enter the final phase, the issue of sanctions is likely to be at the forefront. This is because the Joint Plan of Action to which the parties agreed in November 2013, while addressing virtually all of the West's immediate nuclear concerns, does not map out the necessary pathway to Iran's normalization.
Just as conservative forces in Iran can be expected to try to stop an agreement, forces thriving on confrontation in the United States and elsewhere will do the same. Iran's hardliners play up doubts that the West will ever agree to lift the sanctions, while their Western counterparts will do whatever they can to support that presumption. A spiral of mutually destructive diplomacy might result.
Here, the European Union should clearly signal its readiness to take the lead in easing and lifting restrictions on Iran, though this obviously must be done in close coordination with Europe's partners. The EU oil sanctions, for example, could be suspended almost immediately if an agreement were reached.
An agreement should also be followed by sustained political engagement on other mutually important issues. Developments in Afghanistan and Iraq are obviously urgent. And, based on close consultation with both Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, it may yet be possible to move toward more cooperative arrangements in that strategically vital region.
That will require putting the issue of Syria squarely on the table. Four years after the outbreak of the country's civil war, and despite the horrific humanitarian consequences of the fighting, international diplomacy to stop the violence has achieved nothing. The United Nations Security Council has been split and ineffective, and even Russia seems to be gradually losing the leverage it once had in Damascus.
Iran, the U.S., and the EU all share an interest in stopping a war that is causing the Syrian state to collapse -- with all of the consequences seen in Iraq since 2003 -- and strengthening the forces of Sunni jihadism across the region. Whether this is enough common ground for a constructive dialogue with Iran on ending Syria's civil war remains to be seen, but it is an option that must be pursued.
The talks now reaching their endgame in Lausanne are confined to the nuclear issue; but beyond the agreement loom larger possibilities and risks. A breakthrough might compel a phase of intense diplomacy, giving Iran a pathway to diplomatic normalization and opening the door for grand bargains that could begin to restore order and stability to the rest of the region. A breakdown, by contrast, though unlikely to lead immediately to war, could easily foment developments that lead in that direction, and the region as a whole could be pulled even deeper into the current vortex of chaos and violence.
With the core nuclear issue more or less settled, it is now imperative to resolve sanctions and normalization issues and grasp the opportunity for regional grand bargains that might then become possible. The nuclear deal must mark the beginning of the international community's efforts to engage Iran in addressing the Middle East's toughest challenges.