The situation in Iran grows ever more perilous. Yet there seems to be precious little desire to negotiate.

Iran is reputed to be no more than 9 months away from having nuclear weapons at its disposal. The implications of this for peace in the Middle East are rather serious. Israel is acutely anxious about permitting this state of affairs to arise. There has been a much publicised debate in the Israeli media about the timing of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. For a start this is a risky operation. Iran’s facilities are being housed deep in mountains near Qom and would be very difficult to destroy from the air, certainly without killing thousands of civilians. Even if the Israeli’s were successful, one can only imagine the dangerous consequences of a raid. Iran has plenty of conventional weapons it could unleash on Israel. It also has allies in Hamas and Hezbollah who would escalate their terrorist activities. Iran might retaliate against the West, through terrorist activity or through mining the straits of Hormuz, through which one third of the world’s oil supplies flow.

All of this suggests that a negotiation is desperately called for. Yet in the US would-be Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised military intervention if he is elected. Meanwhile the West has embarked on a programme of economic sanctions to underscore its disapproval. France and Germany have withdrawn their envoys and the UK has expelled Iranian diplomats in the wake of the attacks on the UK’s embassy in Tehran. As one exiting Iranian diplomat ruefully put it “remember that I am one of those who was ready to talk – even if we disagreed”.

Part of the problem is our own demonisation of Iran. Its regime is characterised in the Western media as uniformly extreme, brutal, and aggressive. We struggle to get past this characterisation when we contemplate negotiations with Iran.

Often in life we have to negotiate with people we don’t like or whose conduct we disapprove of. Yes, we must push these people back when they threaten to push us around. But ultimately the only way to deal with these people is the same way that effective negotiators deal with everybody else – by focusing on their underlying needs. That is what needs to happen now in Iran.

Why does Iran feel it needs nuclear weapons? Partly it is perhaps a symbol that it belongs to that senior group of nations that has this badge. Partly it will be out of a sense of needing respect or esteem from the West and its Arab neighbours.

Is it not possible to help Iran develop a sense of belonging and to feel respected without it obtaining nuclear weapons? Maybe. Maybe not. There is some hope in the schism which seems to have opened up between President Ahmadinejad, and the Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. Khameni has exposed a £1.6 billion banking fraud in which Ahmadinejad’s allies were implicated, and he has recently threatened to abolish the role of President altogether. Their competition for power may open up a line of dialogue with one or other which would be less possible if they were united.

Whether that is true or not, the consequences of not trying to negotiate seem rather more dangerous than anything we might risk by engaging in a negotiation knowing that the best way to get more of what we want is to focus on Iran’s needs.

Without that process, a “lose/lose” outcome is edging ever closer…