Diplomacy hailed as Iran returns to the fold

Off the wall: A mural of Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Iranian revolution. © Neil Hester

It took two years of intense negotiations and decades of strict sanctions. Now Iran has abandoned its nuclear ambitions and returned to the world’s economy. Has diplomacy won?

Over the last few days, a team of technicians poured concrete down the heavy water reactor that could help Iran produce the plutonium it needs to make a nuclear bomb. The country also handed over 98% of its enriched uranium, and two-thirds of the centrifuges it could use to make more.

Iran has lived up to the promises it made in a historic nuclear agreement last year. Yesterday its people celebrated as western powers held up their end of the bargain and lifted the sanctions which have crippled its economy.

Prisoners have been released on both sides. Iran has reconnected to the global banking system, and billions of frozen assets have been unlocked. It can trade with other countries again; until now they were ‘not even selling bread or biscuits’, as one financier put it. And as visa laws relax, the country prepares for a ‘tsunami’ of tourists who can finally enjoy its exquisite ancient cities and rich Persian cuisine once more.

Iran’s President Rouhani welcomed the new era as a ‘golden page’ in his country’s history. Across the ocean, President Obama hailed ‘a good day’. Governments talking to each other offers ‘a rare chance to pursue a new path’, he said. Indeed, those hoping for peace have rejoiced to see that talking, not bombing, prevented yet another war from breaking out in the Middle East.

Not everyone is so starry-eyed. Israel’s public security minister warned of a ‘new and dangerous time’ for the region, accusing Iran of continuing to sell arms to terrorist groups which could inflame tensions. Others fear that Iranian relations with Saudi Arabia — already at breaking point — could get even worse as the two countries compete to sell the cheapest oil; and they warned that a war between the Shia and Sunni states could drag the rest of the world with it.

Whatever the outcome, the deal with Iran took two years of difficult negotiation, from hours of patient coaxing to screaming rows in the halls of Vienna. It is not just nuclear safety at stake, say some: it is the art of diplomacy itself.

Talking therapy

For many, the Iran deal’s success proves that talk is a genuine alternative to war, a non-violent solution to earth-shattering problems. If it works, it will set a precedent that can benefit all of us, and could even kick-start negotiations with other difficult states.

But others warn that this is an astonishingly naive view. The troubles in the Middle East are saturated with centuries of conflict and resentment. Such complex rivalries cannot be fixed by talking alone: it is far too easy to tell lies and break promises. We may not like it, but only the threat of military action has a real influence. The best diplomat of all is a bomb.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to visit Iran now that tourists will be welcomed back?
  2. In the words of Winston Churchill: is ‘jaw-jaw’ always better than ‘war-war’?


  1. Split into pairs for some diplomatic role playing. One of you will act as an ambassador for a country that already has nuclear weapons. The other will represent a country that feels it needs to develop them to protect itself. Can you reach an agreement?
  2. Research the history of international diplomacy and plan an essay explaining an agreement that you think changed the world.

Some People Say...

“All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”

Zhou Enlai

What do you think?

Q & A

So am I any safer today?
President Obama insists that the answer is yes: there is one less nuclear nation on the world stage, and the strict inspections in place will ensure that Iran stays that way. But the Middle East is fraught with difficulty. War, rivalries and terrorist organisations are all tangled up with governments, oil supplies and arms deals. In the long-term, it is impossible to predict what happens next. But in the short-term, it does seem as though a potential crisis has been averted.
What about the people of Iran?
Most are delighted. Iran’s economy is predicted to surge from around 0% growth to 5% next year. The sanctions created rising prices and unemployment; everyone suffered, including the large middle class population. There might even be a McDonald’s on the way.

Word Watch

Nuclear bomb
There are two ways to produce the materials for nuclear weapons. First, you can use a centrifuge to spin uranium so fast that the radioactive isotope uranium-235 separates itself. Alternatively, you can irradiate uranium in a nuclear reactor to make plutonium. The deal claims to have halted both processes in Iran.
Frozen assets
For years Iran has been blocked from accessing various properties and funds held around the world. Estimates of exact amounts vary from source to source, but it is often put at around $100bn.
Persia is the ancient name for Iran. The Persian Empire, which began in around 500BC, was once one of the world’s most powerful forces.
Another war
There are ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.
Terrorist groups
Iran is considered an ‘active state sponsor of terrorism’ for funding militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
Shia and Sunni states
The two major sects of Islam, which split after Muhammad’s death in 632. The tension within the religion is often blamed for many of the conflicts in the Middle East.

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