The White House is denying that talks over the technicalities of the Iranian nuclear deal have broken down, never mind that diplomats have so far been unable to resolve differences regarding Iran’s nuclear centrifuge research and so the preliminary deal announced late last year has yet to take effect. “The P5+1 and Iran made progress in our discussions regarding the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action over the past several weeks,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan assured the Washington Free Beacon when it asked about the state of negotiations, given that negotiators had gone home absent an agreement.
Talk of progress might be reassuring, but it is important for outside observers to take them with a grain of salt. While conducting research for my forthcoming book about the history of diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I went through decades of State Department and National Security Council briefings regarding high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority. With the benefit of time, I was also able to compare the statements of the diplomatic briefers with their declassified notes and intelligence regarding what actually had occurred. Seldom did claims of progress actually correlate to progress. Nor had the State Department developed metrics before beginning talks to chart their progress. Rather, the State Department often claims progress not to describe the results of negotiations, but instead to protect the institutional interest of continuing talks and a process in which politicians have invested.
Diplomacy might yet yield results but, in the meantime, rather than accept claims of progress, it would behoove congressmen and journalists to ask the State Department in advance of any talks what their definition for progress is absent any final agreement. If they do so, they may find that, in diplo-speak, the line between progress and failure does not exist.