Commentary Magazine


Negotiating Negotiations

I don’t know whether this report is accurate but I doubt it is. It reads that “The United States has set October as its target for completing the first round of talks with Iran on its nuclear program, according to confidential reports sent to Jerusalem” — but is based on “classified notice reporting on a meeting between a senior European official and the special U.S. envoy on Iran, Dennis Ross.” That’s second or third hand reporting. Contradicting it, just a week ago, an American official spoke on the record with reporters:

White House National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer told foreign journalists Wednesday that “it’s not appropriate at this time to be trying to establish timetables, but rather seeing how the engagement can move forward.” 

Contrary to what critics on the left tend to argue, Israel isn’t the only one thinking that a deadline is necessary. Nicholas Burns, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and today a Harvard Professor, had more Iran-related negotiating hours in recent years than anyone, and he seems to think that prolonging the talks will not produce for better results:

“We’ve got to negotiate from a position of strength. We can’t go hat in hand to these negotiations and think by just talking we are going to make progress,” Burns said. Any negotiations with Tehran must have a strict timetable and include a previous agreement with both Russia and China for harsh sanctions if the talks fail, Burns said. And they should be backed up by the possibility of military action, he added.

Assuming that the U.S.-Iran dialogue will start in earnest only after Iran’s June election, October seems like a sensible date to Israel:

“It is important that the dialogue with Iran be limited, and if after three months it will become clear that the Iranians stalling and are not shelving their nuclear program, the international community will be required to take practical measures against them,” Lieberman said in a meeting with Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday.

Whether or not there’s some truth to the fresher report from Jerusalem, “deadline” talk will be at the center of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s talk with President Obama next week. According to many reports, Obama realizes that the Iranians might be playing for time, and the Senate report, confirming Israel’s claims that “Iran could have enough material for a nuclear bomb in six months,” gives Netanyahu some additional ammunition for this meeting. The danger one might detect in the different, sometimes conflicting reports on “deadline yes or no” — is that time can’t only lapse in negotiations with Iran — it can also pass in negotiation over the right deadline for negotiation.