During the presidential debate on foreign policy, President Obama denied that his administration was preparing to conduct secret talks with Iran after the presidential election, as a New York Times story alleged. But according to a report published today in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and on its English-language website Ynet.com, such talks are not only planned but have been going on for months and are being led by presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett. This raises questions not only about whether the president will stand by his pledge in the debate that any deal with Iran must require them to give up their “nuclear program,” but also whether she is negotiating a compromise along the lines sought by the Europeans in the P5+1 talks. In that compromise, Tehran would be allowed considerable leeway in terms of its nuclear future. It also places in context the administration’s absolute refusal to agree to “red lines,” in response to Israel’s request that the U.S. promise diplomacy would not be allowed to drag on until it would be too late to take action to forestall Iran’s nuclear goal.
That secret talks are going on with Iran is, in itself, hardly surprising since Tehran has been holding off-and-on talks with the West about the nuclear issue for years. But Jarrett’s involvement signals the importance the issue has for Obama because of her standing as a senior advisor and her close personal connection with the Obama family. But by putting someone with no background on security issues in charge of this track, Obama may be signaling that the president’s goal here is not an Iranian surrender of nuclear capability, but rather a political compromise that may not eliminate the threat of an Islamist bomb sometime down the road.
Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran (her father ran a hospital there) but left when she was 5, though she is said to have spoken Persian as a child. But that’s the extent of her expertise on the country. Her main qualification is that she is a close confidante of both the president and his wife. She is also widely given credit for helping to jump-start the president’s career by introducing him into the corrupt world of Chicago politics, where she was a significant player. That gives her credibility with the Iranians since she has a direct line to the White House. But if a re-elected Obama is rightly suspected of wanting to show more “flexibility” with America’s foes, then the Jarrett caper seems to be evidence that he is more interested in making this sore issue go away rather than pushing Iran hard to give up the possibility of attaining a weapon.
Though Jarrett and Obama may think their Chicago background makes them tough, the Iranians have made fools of every Western negotiator they’ve dealt with in the past decade, because of their tenacity and willingness to use the charade of talks as a way to run out the clock while their scientists get closer to achieving the country’s nuclear ambition. While the sanctions that the administration reluctantly put in place against Iran have caused the country economic pain, the American conviction that this gives them leverage over the ayatollahs may be mistaken. So long as the Iranian regime believes they can outlast and out-talk the West on this issue, it’s doubtful they can be compelled to sign a deal that would eliminate the nuclear threat–or to observe it even if they did.
While the president has been talking tough about Iran during the election year, it remains to be seen how tough his envoy has been with the Iranians in their secret talks. If Ms. Jarrett emerges with a deal sometime after the election, the suspicion is that her goal is more to get the president off the hook for his promises than to actually stop the Iranians.