While President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have attempted to talk tough about the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, by agreeing to the P5+1 talks that were launched last week in Istanbul, the administration has set in motion a process that is clearly lurching out of their control. The Iranians scored a not insignificant victory by convincing the West to wait several weeks until the next meeting in late May. And as Laura Rozen reported in Al Monitor last week, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a fierce critic of Israel, is in clear charge of the negotiations and may be steering the talks toward a deal that will fall well short of an agreement that would force an end to the Iranian program. But a key element to the creation of such an unsatisfactory conclusion to this process will be to convince the West that the Iranians are genuinely interested in a deal. And as Rozen notes today, the Islamist regime is working hard to give onlookers the impression that accommodation is their priority.
If all this sounds to good to be true it’s because it almost certainly is. The spin coming out of Tehran is aimed at creating false confidence in their willingness to abandon their nuclear ambitions and sign a deal that would allow the Europeans, as well as Iran’s Russian and Chinese friends to pretend that worries about the ayatollahs getting their hands on a nuke are put to rest. But since the Iranians have already successfully played this cat and mouse game with Western negotiators before, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the “positive signals” coming out Iran is that the regime is aiming at driving a wedge between the United States and the other members of the P5+1 delegation.
These “positive signals” from regime figures about their desire for an end to the confrontation are exactly what those who were never really interested in pushing the Iranians hard want to hear. The Iranian happy talk is the bait needed to draw Ashton into prolonged negotiations that serve a double purpose for Tehran.
On the one hand, the effort to build confidence in Iran’s desire to peace helps undermine any sense of urgency on the part of the West as well as sapping support for increasing sanctions on the regime this summer. So long as the talks are being conducted the Iranians know they are safe from attack from Israel. But if they can convince gullible Western diplomats as well as the so-called experts about Iran that the process is leading toward an agreement, then it is possible the EU will back down on its promise to embargo Iranian oil. This holds out the hope that the West will gradually back away from sanctions and make it more difficult to make credible threats even after the Iranians inevitably disappoint their negotiating partners as they have repeatedly.
But the Iranian tactic has another more fundamental purpose. The Iranians benefit from dragging out the negotiations as long as possible since that allows their nuclear program extra time to keep refining uranium in order to get closer to their goal of a bomb. As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said this week, their centrifuges were spinning before the talks started, they were spinning during the talks and have not stopped since.
It is a hopeful sign that, as Rozen reports, the State Department is dismissing the Iranian signals that others are so determined to interpret positively. However, by going down the garden path with the P5+1 group, the Obama administration is no longer in control of the effort to pressure Tehran. If, as the Iranians not unreasonably believe, the Chinese and Russians can be wooed into supporting their stand in the talks, all the president’s “diplomatic window” will have accomplished will be to buy the Islamist regime more precious time to get closer to their nuclear goal as his shaky international coalition unravels.