The agreement last month by Iran and the P5+1 to hold further negotiations in Baghdad today has inspired cautious optimism from many observers. But the real work still remains.
There has been no confirmed breakthrough beyond broad principles, and Iran has maintained its stance on preconditions (an outcome which elicited a torrent of triumphalism by conservative Iranian figures). All this could well signal a real gap in understanding between the two sides, rather than a coming together. The United States and its international partners must be prepared for a breakdown in talks even as they make the sincere effort to strike a deal with Iran. Developing a diplomatic plan B, employing a trusted intermediary able to bridge the confidence gap, could forestall further divisions and military conflict. South Africa could be an ideal backup go-between.
At talks in Istanbul, Iran showed it still has little trust in the West. Not only did the Iranian team insist that the venue of today's talks be in the capital of its Iraqi ally, but reports also claim Tehran refused bilateral meetings with all the P5+1 nations except China. As a willing and nontraditional mediator, South Africa would not face the Iranian skepticism the P5+1 historically has. It maintains the trust of Iran, and relations with Washington are on the mend. Having given up its own nuclear ambitions—still the only country to have done so after starting one from scratch—it brings unique credibility and perspective on the issue.
Outside intermediation has a checkered past, and there is reason to believe the authors of the failed 2009 “Tehran Declaration”—Brazil and Turkey—won’t play a role this time. Ties between Turkey and Iran have been increasingly strained, beginning with Turkey’s support for the NATO mission in Libya and its calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down, prompting many attempts by influential Iranian leaders to try to move talks away from Istanbul. At the same time, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has taken a stricter line on Iran than her predecessor, drawing the ire of Iranian officials. South Africa is one of the few potential intermediaries that Tehran still trusts.
Since the Islamic Republic’s support for the African National Congress during the apartheid era, Iran’s relations with South Africa have been strong. The bond is reinforced by South Africa’s dependence on Iranian crude oil, which makes up a quarter of its imports. Amid efforts by the United States to wean South Africa off Iranian oil, Tehran has moved decisively to shore up relations, announcing it will invest billions into South Africa’s beleaguered power-generation sector.
South Africa has tread lightly on the oil-sanctions issue—first agreeing to circumvent them, then suggesting it would look elsewhere for its supply. At the same time, oil-industry sources indicate Iran has rekindled talks about storing its excess production off South Africa’s cape coast, providing the regime with more options. Iran clearly values the flexibility an open relationship with South Africa affords it—despite South Africa’s conflicting signals.