The Iranian nuclear threat has been on the back burner in recent months, as first the United States and now Israel have been distracted by elections. But the reported comments of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during a visit to India about Tehran’s interest in another round of talks with the West are sure to revive the hopes of those who believe in the existence of a “window of diplomacy” to resolve the issue.
But the question to be asked about this is not so much whether there will be more talks but whether both the Iranians and their Western negotiating partners have the same motive for continuing what can only be described as the charade of a diplomatic process. If President Obama is prepared to engage in a repeat of last year’s P5+1 fiasco that took up the better part of a year doing nothing but allowing the Iranians to get that much closer to their nuclear goal, then it will be difficult to argue that he is not doing the same thing as the Iranians: stalling until it is too late to do anything about an Iranian bomb.
The Iranian motive for their attempt to lure the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 group back into another round of negotiations is obvious. Having some sort of diplomatic process in place no matter how hopeless its prospects is the only way to ensure that they are not attacked by Israel next spring and summer. It is also their only path toward persuading the international community to loosen up enforcement of the economic sanctions that have been hurting the Iranian economy and to stop the enactment of even more stringent measures against them. They want to do what they have been doing since the middle of the George W. Bush administration: run out the clock on the West while their nuclear program gets closer to completion.
The motives of the Obama administration and the rest of the P5+1 club are ostensibly very different. Some in Washington may still think the ayatollahs can be talked out of their nuclear ambitions. Others may believe that the sanctions that are making life difficult for ordinary Iranians may eventually force the regime to bend.
But after so many trips down the diplomatic garden path with the Iranians, it is hard to believe that the Obama administration is foolish enough to think another tête-à-tête or two with Tehran’s representatives will accomplish what eight years of dead-end talks didn’t do.
Were the West to step up the sanctions against Iran and tighten the noose on its economy to the point where the country’s oil exports were completely shut down, there might be a theoretical chance of success. But there are few signs that the president is interested in doing that and little chance that he could get the Russians and the Chinese to go along even if he did want to get tougher. Though the current restrictions on commerce with Iran have inflicted much pain, enforcement has been sporadic and there is no sign that the resolve of the Islamist regime has been even slightly affected.
The West will continue to engage in talks they know won’t succeed in no small measure because the alternatives–more sanctions and credible threats of the use of force–don’t appear to be in the cards. Until that changes, the Iranians are probably right to think all they have to do is to wait them out.