It can be done.

The P5+1 talks were, as we blogged, very close to an agreement between the US and Iran. Just not close enough, and we’ll meet again in the third week of November – in a week’s time, that is. It can be done, though.

The main obstacle, they say, is that France has an additional demand regarding the Iranian heavy-water reactor at Arak. This reactor is primarily intended to produce odd radio-isotopes for medical, scientific, and industrial uses. Don’t ask me, ask France24.

Perhaps Laurent Fabius has been reading Arms Control Wonk. ACW is one of the great achievements of Internet culture, up there with lolcats, /b/, the NANOG mailing list, and James Deen’s filmography, and for many of its readers, even less acceptable for use at work. Recently, they used a Bayesian decision tree approach to work out what options might minimise the chance of an Iranian bomb while being acceptable to the Iranians.

The answer is that the apparently dull question of the isotopes is crucial; because the Arak HWR would also create quite a lot of plutonium along with the isotopes, and wouldn’t make much of a fuss doing it, it would be the most likely way to get to the Bomb without anyone noticing in time to do anything about it. ACW concludes that the key Iranian demand, to own the nuclear fuel cycle, is acceptable with IAEA safeguards and without the Arak HWR. They also have some useful hints about monitoring and also about how the Arak HWR could be replaced, or operated under safeguards.

So, the take-home so far: the French aren’t being unreasonable, they’re reading the right blog, and a deal is possible.

What about the Iranian side? When Hassan Rouhani won the elections, he benefited from years of preparation working in a thinktank whose aim was to keep the option of peace open. Interestingly, he turned down the job of minister of intelligence to run it. The nuclear industry has been pulled closer to the elected government. Outriders have been allowed to go out and argue a radical case for peace. The new president wished the Iranian Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah. This will all have cost political capital, and will have run up risks for those involved if it doesn’t work out.

On the other hand, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control has basically stopped listing more Iranian shipping lines, airlines, banks, and other businesses. You only have to read the piece to the bottom to know that even that will have cost political capital, and will have run up risks for those involved if it doesn’t work out. But then. Here is Dexter Filkins’ superb profile of Iranian intelligence chief, Qassem Suleimani, who sounds just as frightening as one of our best and not much worse.

Specifically, here’s US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, later the civilian half of David Petraeus:

Before the bombing began, Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban. At a meeting in early October, 2001, the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. “If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!” he shouted. “When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.” He stomped out of the room. “It was a great moment,” Crocker said.

The coöperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here’s the logic.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.”

Crocker hammers the point home in the NYT this week.

Perhaps the most important lesson here is that democracy eventually worked. It wasn’t war, not warmongering, that changed anything. It was an election. Iranians voted out Ahmedinejad and voted in Rouhani.

It may be imperfect democracy, heavily influenced by other powers. Those powers seem to believe in it more than one might expect – Khamenei wanted even those who didn’t believe in the Islamic Republic to come out and vote, presumably hoping the result would demonstrate how wrong they were, although he might not have voted the way we expect. (And, of course, whose democracy isn’t?)

Also, international action other than war worked. Economic sanctions helped a lot. The US and allied navies’ rather paradoxical policy, moving hordes of ships into the area and also being ostentatiously helpful around shipwrecks and incidents of piracy, seems to have helped, not least because there are other people involved. Reassuring the neighbours is important too.

And here’s something interesting. Iran added 136 Internet Autonomous System Numbers between 2011 and 2013, more than doubling their total, vastly outgrowing Turkey or Israel or Egypt or Lebanon.

There are some other people who deserve recognition. Wendy Sherman, US diplomat, is one. Another is EU diplomat Catherine Ashton, as this blog said. Even velociraptor tory Peter Oborne thinks so, these days.

The commitment on both sides deserves respect. And, as ACW makes clear, if the problem is the Arak HWR, it is both real, and can also be solved.

A bit of diplomacy and German

OK so. The Germans really aren’t happy about the whole “we 0wnzrd yr chancellor lady!!1!” thing. Today, the German Foreign Ministry suggested that the British ambassador might drop by for a chat, perhaps with coffee and cakes. I say this because there is a fine distinction available in some British idioms between an interview without biscuits, without tea, and without tea or biscuits, indicating a progressively more vicious chastisement.

Anyway, diplomacy is a game where words have very precise meanings. No.10 Downing Street claimed that the ambassador had only been invited, not called in or summoned. One implies an informal conversation, the other an interview with neither tea nor biscuits.

Here’s the official German statement. The verb used is gebeten. The stammwort or root word here is beten, to pray, and the closest sense in English would be “pray” as in “Pray let me have a report on one sheet of paper. Action this day”, as Winston Churchill was in the habit of writing. You can do this in French, too, with “priére de…”, and the tone is similar.

In fact, if somebody offends you by being pompous, arrogant, or entitled in German, you can accuse them of being gebieterisch, “like one who gebetens”, which would be quite harsh in itself. I would certainly feel very different if someone said “Sie sind zu einem Gespräch eingeladen” – you are invited to a conversation – than if they said “Sie sind zu einem Gespräch gebeten” – “Pray attend a conversation”.

Here’s the kicker. The German official translation of the statement says the ambassador was merely “asked” to come by. It wasn’t the convivial “invited”, but it wasn’t “summoned” either. Apparently, the version of the statement in the original is the one that matters in diplomatic practice.