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What the French and Saudis Understand but Obama Doesn’t

The Almaty talks between Iran and the G5+1 have come and gone. And, despite statements to the contrary by American officials, there is no reason for optimism.

(In one chapter in my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes which Encounter will publish next year, I compare all the State Department statements evaluating its high stakes diplomacy with Iran, North Korea, and the PLO with declassified contemporaneous accounts and find that in most cases, the State Department spokesman simply lied in order to suggest momentum for future talks).

The United States offered concessions, which Iranian negotiators pocketed before walking away. While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s swatting down of Vice President Biden’s offer of negotiations made brief headlines, neither the New York Times nor Washington Post had the institutional memory to recall that, in the wake of President Obama’s outstretched hand, Khamenei had used a speech on the 30th anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure to say much the same thing and to issue the demand that the United States withdraw its forces from the Persian Gulf as a precondition to talks.

Secretary of State John Kerry considers himself an internationalist, and President Obama believes strongly in listening to the will of America’s international partners. Perhaps, then, they might want to consider Saudi and French assessments of the talks in Kazakhstan.

Take this February 27 editorial from Al-Madinah, a paper published out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with a translation from the Arabic provided by the Open Source Center:

What Iran wants to get from these talks is to waste more time that would allow it to complete its nuclear program, i.e. reaching the capability to produce nuclear bombs. This does not provide much optimism that the new talks would achieve any breakthroughs toward reaching an agreement between the two parties in which Iran would stop proceeding with uranium enrichment beyond 20%.  In view of this reality, the superpowers should by now realize very well that Iran has no intention whatsoever to change its position, especially since the new talks take place a few months before the Iranian presidential elections, making it difficult to imagine that Tehran would offer any concessions.

Or this recent column from Paris’ Le Figaro:

…While maintaining a steadfast posture on the ground, Tehran has not softened its position on the diplomatic front either.  Just two days before the meeting in Kazakhstan, the Iranian authorities warned that they did not intend to make any concessions on their positions.  They set the same two preconditions for starting discussions on their nuclear program — the immediate lifting of the sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council and recognition of their “nuclear rights.”  The authorities are resolved to approach the Almaty talks from a “position of strength.”  In Kazakhstan, the major powers will have to take care “not to repeat past errors,” Said Jalili said, criticizing the sanctions introduced by the international community against his country. At the beginning of the month, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also rejected the proposal made by American Vice President Joe Biden of engaging in bilateral negotiations….

There is a pattern to American diplomacy in which keeping adversaries at the table trumps the cost of doing so. In this case, Obama and Kerry are so determined to pursue a diplomatic path with Iran that they have failed to realize that previous incentives have retrenched Iranian behavior rather than resolved it. Iran can, at any time, resolve the crisis by fulfilling its commitments. The issue really is that simple. How ironic it is that France and Saudi Arabia recognize this, but Obama refuses to recognize any observations or arguments that contradict an ill-thought-out strategy. Not only is he empowering Iran, but he is antagonizing American allies. There was certainly tension between Europe and America’s Arab allies during the Bush years, but whatever the arguments at the time, they recognized that when push came to shove, the United States had their back. No longer.