There are some kinds of international negotiations that are not all that time sensitive. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fall into that category. Although the need for a resolution to the conflict is as great today as it ever was, the nature of the discussions are such that, contrary to the allegations of some of Israel’s critics, nothing is happening on the ground that fundamentally changes the possible solution to the problem. The West Bank settlements that the Palestinians want removed are no more and no less likely to be evacuated in exchange for real peace today than they were 15 years ago or will be five, ten, or fifteen years from now, assuming the Palestinians ever decide to accept an Israeli offer.
But that is not the case with the Iran nuclear talks. Since the first discussion between Tehran and the West more than a decade ago, the whole world has known that any negotiations on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program had to be completed before the moment when the Islamist regime achieved weapons capability.
That’s why the Iranians’ delaying tactics over the years were so frustrating and so destructive of any hope for a diplomatic solution. Whether led by supposed moderate Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, or less presentable figures, the Iranians have consistently stalled nuclear talks. At times Iran has seemed to accept deals with the West only to renege on them later in an effort to run out the clock on negotiations until they achieved their nuclear dream.
Yet with the current round of P5+1 negotiations between Iran and the West, all that is supposedly in the past. The signing of an interim nuclear deal last November was supposed to herald the beginning of a genuine diplomatic process that would erase the sorry record in which Western negotiators were played for fools by a succession of Iranian envoys. But with the conclusion of the first meetings in Vienna of the renewed P5+1 and the reported agreement on a framework for future talks with Iran, the celebrations of this alleged achievement are ignoring some key questions. Why did it take more than three months to begin the next round after the interim agreement? And why, after waiting all that time, will the negotiators take another month off before showing up again in late March for another try? With most observers already assuming that the six-month time frame for this round will be extended, it’s time to ask whether anyone in the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team orchestrating this dilatory process realizes just how much time is being wasted and why that is so dangerous.
In their defense, the Obama administration considers the terms of the interim agreement to have gotten them off the hook on the time factor. President Obama has represented that deal as having frozen the Iranian program in place. If true, that would not only justify the loosening of sanctions on the regime but the leisurely pace of any future talks. But even a passing glance at the actual terms of the agreement reveals that Iran’s nuclear effort is far from frozen.
The U.S. has claimed the limitations imposed on Iran’s enrichment of uranium means its nuclear program is frozen in place since its centrifuges are now only set to produce fuel at less than five percent rather than the higher levels needed for weapons. But what the president and Secretary of State John Kerry keep failing to mention is that the uranium treated in this manner can easily be converted to weapons use in a nuclear breakout. The same is true of Iran’s stockpile of refined uranium that has been converted to oxide powder.
Even worse, the key Iranian nuclear research on military applications of nuclear power is continuing in the aftermath of the interim deal. Though the president boasted in his State of the Union address of unprecedented inspections being conducted at Iranian nuclear sites that would ensure its program was neutralized, he also failed to mention that no such inspections are being conducted at Parchin, where the Iranian military work is being conducted.
The happy talk about the chances for a successful conclusion to the negotiations being floated at sites such as AL Monitor’s Back Channel blog or even the New York Times ignores the fact that far from being stopped, the clock continues to tick down to the day when Iran reaches the point of no return on its nuclear dream. So long as the centrifuges continue to turn—and with the Iranians issuing clear warnings that they will not consider dismantling them or give up the ballistic missile program that makes their nukes a lethal threat to the U.S. as much as the State of Israel—time remains of the essence. And yet the Western negotiators continue to take their sweet time as if they could go on talking forever in what is already being billed as a “marathon” negotiation.
The acceptance of these delays reflects not only the confidence of the Iranians that they will be able to keep their nuclear program operating until it gives them a weapon but also the realization that the Obama administration may be more focused on containment of Iran than on stopping it.