Iran’s nuclear programme is one of the world’s most discussed issues. Every major western power waxes eloquent on the dangers it represents in a politically volatile region supposed to be full of suicidal extremists. The rhetoric down the years conjures up a picture of sleepless men and women pacing restlessly up and down the corridors of their palaces, wondering how the world can avoid catastrophe. So it comes as a relief to know that many of these leaders are at a table with Iranian representatives to discuss a resolution of the problem.

The hype surrounding Iran’s programme of uranium enrichment is the result of western scepticism about its claim of no plans to produce weapons grade uranium. Part of that is the toxic overhang of the Iranian revolution of 1979 but another component is the recurring nightmare of a so-called Islamic bomb. Israel’s paranoia about its future in such an environment is yet another element. Iran’s cause has not been helped by the intemperate and often bizarre proclamations of Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, its president from 2005 until earlier this year. But it is also true that the US summarily rejected Iran’s overtures of friendship during the two terms of Mohamed Khatami (1997-2005), Ahmedinajad’s predecessor. Until now, the west had refused to talk at all.

The sustained demonisation of Iran gives the impression of a fanatic regime dangerously out of control, but in this matter at least it has been moderate. Consider the following: the first allegations of a nuclear weapons programme surfaced in 1984, when Jane’s Intelligence Defense Weekly warned that Iran was moving “very quickly” towards a nuclear weapon and could have one as early as 1986. Since then these allegations have been recycled every couple of years by unnamed government officials, responsible newspapers and senior, mostly Israeli, political leaders and dutifully echoed in other international forums. These repetitions by ostensibly reputable sources have created a dense network of perceptions that seems impregnable by reality. Even today, nearly 30 years later, Iran is merely capable of 20 per cent enrichment against the 90 per cent required for weapons grade while report after report routinely assumes that it is well en route to weapons status. Apart from being economical with the truth, the arguments rely heavily on binary stereotypes of Islam versus the others, fanatics versus moderates and Us versus Them, avoiding a real discussion on the evidence at hand.

The economic consequences for Iran have been dire. In addition to US sanctions in place since 1979, the United Nations imposed sanctions in 2006 over its refusal to suspend enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel. The European Union has its own set of sanctions, as have a number of other countries. Western arm-twisting has led countries such as China and India to fall in line, if indirectly. Ironically, there is no way of knowing if they ever deterred Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions as the evidence to conclude it tried to realise them in the first place has not been produced.

There is no doubt, however, that sanctions have prompted this new Iranian outreach. It is the only way for a country whose economic potential is crippled, where there are large numbers of restless, young unemployed people. It cannot reap the demographic dividend in a non-performing economy. The election of the moderate Hasan Rouhani was an important first step in the process. He has found a receptive listener in US President Barack Obama, himself perhaps weary of war at home and abroad. The thaw is still some way off but there is a chance of some reconciliation with one of the most important actors in the Middle East.

An agreement will be a big deal for every interested party in the affair, but it has no significance for nuclear disarmament in general. While all this energy was being spent to rein in one state, three others went nuclear, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The world did precious little to deter them, and seeing the deference with which negotiators treat a failed state like North Korea, Teheran could be excused for musing wryly on the advantages of being a nuclear power.

The end of Iran’s isolation is in sight but deal can only be the first step. Repairing a relation destroyed by the siege of the American embassy Teheran and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie will take much more than an agreement. There’s also Israeli unhappiness over a process of reintegration to contend with, but time has a way of changing the world beyond recognition.

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