Amid the persistent beating of war drums, an influential international conflict prevention group is insisting that a deal between Western countries and Iran on Tehran's controversial nuclear programme can still be reached.
In a new report released Thursday, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said such a deal would include Tehran's acceptance of full-scope international safeguards to ensure the programme could not be diverted to military use.
It would also entail Iran's full co-operation in clearing up outstanding questions regarding alleged pre- 2003 nuclear weaponisation research and experimentation, and an exchange of its current stockpile of twenty percent enriched uranium for fuel rods from abroad.
In exchange, the so-called P5+1 countries (the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany) would freeze implementation of tough new U.S. and European Union (EU) sanctions, recognise Iran's "right to enrich" uranium up to five percent and lift existing sanctions in stages.
The 45-page report, "In Heavy Waters: Iran's Nuclear Program, the Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey", called on the United States and the EU to take their cue from Ankara's approach of full engagement with Iran, instead of isolation, sanctions, sabotage and threats of war on which they have mainly relied to date.
"(A) world community in desperate need of fresh thinking could do worse than learn from Turkey's experience and test its assumptions," the report noted, suggesting that Iran be engaged at all levels and "that those engaging it… include a larger variety of countries, including emerging powers with which it feels greater affinity".
"Economic pressure is at best futile, at worse counter-productive," it added, and "Tehran ought to be presented with a realistic proposal."
"If it is either sanctions, whose success is hard to imagine, or military action, whose consequences are terrifying to contemplate, that is not a choice," it said. "It is an abject failure."
The report comes amid continuing speculation about a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
The administration of President Barack Obama is also under growing pressure by pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress to impose new sanctions against Iran and take concrete steps, including dispatching more naval forces to the Gulf, to enhance the threat of U.S. military action against Tehran if it does not agree to abandon its nuclear programme.
It also comes in the wake of two visits to Tehran by high-level delegations from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose requests to visit a facility on a military base suspected of having been used to test triggering devices for nuclear weapons were reportedly rebuffed.
The delegation and its hosts also failed to agree on an agenda for clearing up outstanding questions regarding Tehran's past research that Western nations believe may have been part of a weaponisation programme.
Despite the IAEA's apparent lack of progress, Iran's acceptance last week of a long-standing request from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on behalf of the P5+1 to resume negotiations, stalled for over a year, makes it likely that a new round of talks will take place in late March or April, probably in Istanbul, according to analysts here.
Anticipation of those talks, as well as the rapid escalation of tensions over the last two months, particularly between Israel and Iran, has provoked a flurry of proposals to revive the dormant diplomatic track, if only to calm a situation threatening to spin out of control.
Those proposals contain the same or similar recommendations to those included in the ICG report.
Early this month, for example, two former top-ranking U.S. diplomats, ICG Chair Thomas Pickering and William Luers, called in a "New York Times" op-ed for the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council to accept a Iranian nuclear programme with certain conditions attached.
The programme would include uranium enrichment to no more than five percent "in return for Iran's agreeing to grant inspectors full access to that programme to assure that Iran did not build a nuclear weapons".
Such a bargain – part of a broader initiative to build confidence and co-operation between the U.S. and Iran on a range of issues of common interest, including Afghanistan and Iraq – would result in the progressive reduction of U.N. sanctions against Iran once the inspection regime was in place.
That proposal was strongly endorsed by the president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb.
"For sure, neither I nor anyone else knows whether Iran will accept this time. But I do know this: if we don't at least try the negotiating track, a war of untold uncertainties and dangers can come upon us," he wrote in the Daily Beast.
The same basic bargain was also endorsed by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, an Iranian diplomat currently at Princeton University, who served as spokesman for Iran's nuclear negotiating team, in a column for Bloomberg News in mid- February.
Iran should accept the maximum level of transparency with the IAEA, limit enrichment activities to less than five percent, and clear up its nuclear file with the IAEA, he argued, while the West should recognise Tehran's right to enrich and ease sections as part of a "step-by-step plan" proposed by Russia last year.
Perhaps the most intriguing contribution was from Dennis Ross, formerly Obama's chief Iran aide and long considered a hawk on the nuclear issue.
In a Times op-ed, he suggested that the administration was ready to accept a deal that combined intrusive inspections with limits on uranium enrichment and he cited Moscow's step-by-step approach favourably, although he did not address when and how existing sanctions could be eased.
The new ICG report notes that Turkey, which has ruled out military action against Iran, has "useful experience" in dealing with Iran's nuclear issue, primarily through its efforts with Brazil in 2010 to work out a confidence-building deal - much of which incorporated the basic elements of the Crisis Group proposal - acceptable to both the P5+1 and Iran.
While the deal was summarily rejected by the U.S. and the EU at the time, Ankara has since worked closely with the Obama administration on a range of major issues during the so-called Arab Spring.
Indeed, Obama has come to consider Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan one of his favourite foreign leaders.
Adding to Ankara's credibility has been its opposition to broad sanctions and its support for dialogue with Iran – positions similar to the views of Russia and China, the report noted.
"This is not to say that Turkey is amenable to a nuclear-armed Iran," the report said.
"But it is far more sympathetic to the view that the West cannot dictate who can have a nuclear capacity and who cannot; is less alarmist when it comes to the status of Iran's program; and believes that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is both distant and unsure."