Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Iran talks

Will Secret Diplomacy Seal Iran Appeasement?

The latest round of nuclear talks between the West and Iran ended earlier this month without the progress toward an agreement that many had anticipated. Though the United States and its allies seem eager to sign a deal that will put a fig leaf of non-proliferation on an Iranian nuclear program that they are content to leave in place, Tehran has picked up on Washington’s zeal for a deal and is doing what its negotiators have done best for over a decade: stalling. With the international sanctions regime already starting to take on water after last November’s interim agreement that loosened the economic restrictions on Iran, the Islamist regime knows it is in a far stronger position than its Western counterparts.

But rather than reacting to this dismal situation by rethinking his approach, President Obama seems determined to double down on his determination to get a deal. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the president is revisiting the tactic he used last year to revive the moribund P5+1 talks with Iran. Rather than continuing to work with his European partners, it appears the U.S. will once again leave the multilateral negotiations and conduct bilateral talks. The assumption is that on their own, American diplomats will be able to entice the Iranians to sign on the dotted line with concessions that even the French and the British wouldn’t consider. If true, this illustrates that what the president started last year with the interim deal is a process that has one goal and one goal alone: getting a deal with Iran no matter what the price.

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The latest round of nuclear talks between the West and Iran ended earlier this month without the progress toward an agreement that many had anticipated. Though the United States and its allies seem eager to sign a deal that will put a fig leaf of non-proliferation on an Iranian nuclear program that they are content to leave in place, Tehran has picked up on Washington’s zeal for a deal and is doing what its negotiators have done best for over a decade: stalling. With the international sanctions regime already starting to take on water after last November’s interim agreement that loosened the economic restrictions on Iran, the Islamist regime knows it is in a far stronger position than its Western counterparts.

But rather than reacting to this dismal situation by rethinking his approach, President Obama seems determined to double down on his determination to get a deal. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, the president is revisiting the tactic he used last year to revive the moribund P5+1 talks with Iran. Rather than continuing to work with his European partners, it appears the U.S. will once again leave the multilateral negotiations and conduct bilateral talks. The assumption is that on their own, American diplomats will be able to entice the Iranians to sign on the dotted line with concessions that even the French and the British wouldn’t consider. If true, this illustrates that what the president started last year with the interim deal is a process that has one goal and one goal alone: getting a deal with Iran no matter what the price.

The Iranians’ strong negotiating position stems directly from the interim agreement that was brought about as the result of secret U.S.-Iran talks. It is difficult to imagine an international community that was reluctantly dragged into enacting sanctions in the first place, raising the pressure on Iran if no deal is reached. Nor does anyone seriously imagine President Obama ordering the use of force if the talks continue to be stalemated. As a result, there is very little reason for the ayatollahs to think they have much to worry about in the talks.

Having already won the West’s acceptance of its “right” to enrich uranium, ending the Iranian nuclear program, as President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign, is off the table. The Iranians are now only negotiating about how long it would take them to “break out” from a deal and race to a bomb. At this point the only objective of the Western negotiators appears to be to lengthen that period from a few weeks to a few months, but even this victory has not lessened Iran’s determination to drag out the talks even further.

That is why the possibility of more secret talks is such a dangerous development. Though the current multilateral negotiations have created a negotiating track that has given the Iranians much of what they wanted in the talks, the open nature of these monthly talk fests make it difficult for the Americans to sweeten the pot even further for the Iranians. Since Tehran has already openly mocked requests to include their ballistic weapons program in the talks and continue to make it hard for the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor their facilities, including their military research sites, transparency would appear to favor at least the pretense that the purpose of the negotiations is to actually stop the Iranians from getting a bomb. But secret talks offer the possibility that Obama can go even further than his partners, who have at times balked at the open desire of Washington for an end to the confrontation with Iran at almost any price.

Iran went into this process hoping that it could achieve by Western consent what it appeared it was well on its way to achieving in spite of the push for sanctions: American approval for a nuclear program that could easily be converted to military use. If, as the Journal reported today, Iran’s weapons research scientists are still hard at work at getting closer to a bomb, the margin of error for the U.S. in this process is very small. Having conceded that Iran could amass enough nuclear fuel for a bomb, it will be harder still to craft a deal that could prevent it from taking that next inevitable state to a weapon.

The Obama administration proved last fall that it could sell even a weak deal with Iran to the American public and brand skeptics as potential warmongers. It may be thinking that it can do the same with an even flimsier agreement negotiated in similar secrecy this year. If so, Obama may think he may have gotten himself off the hook for his many promises to stop the Iranians from getting a weapon. But such drives for appeasement that contain within them the seeds of future conflict rarely end well for the appeasers.

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U.S.-Iran Talks Pose a Dilemma for Israel

The New York Times has been enjoying the confusion it sowed in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran when it published a story last weekend about an agreement between the United States and Iran to have bilateral nuclear talks after the presidential election. The White House and the Iranians denied it while the Israelis didn’t seem sure what to believe. But whatever the truth of the account, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying hard to avoid sending mixed signals about the possibility of a new round of Iran talks. In a story published in today’s Times, the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren reports the Israeli government sent out an email on Monday to every one of the country’s embassies and consulates saying that they had no knowledge of the proposed talks and admonishing their diplomats to keep their mouths shut about the issue.

As Rudoren pointed out in her piece, despite the White House denials, the president contradicted himself in the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney on Monday night since he said at one point that the Times story was “not true” and then said his policy was to encourage “bilateral discussions with the Iranians.” That seemed to signal that the Times was operating with correct information. That poses a dilemma for Israel. Netanyahu knows that it makes no sense for him to have yet another public brawl with President Obama on the eve of his re-election fight. Yet he also understands the danger of the U.S. being drawn into yet another pointless round of talks that will only serve to buy the Iranians more time to achieve their nuclear ambition. Thus, while there’s no doubt that Israel has good reason to be concerned about whether more U.S. diplomacy will let Iran off the hook, Netanyahu has decided to play this hand very close to his chest.

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The New York Times has been enjoying the confusion it sowed in Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran when it published a story last weekend about an agreement between the United States and Iran to have bilateral nuclear talks after the presidential election. The White House and the Iranians denied it while the Israelis didn’t seem sure what to believe. But whatever the truth of the account, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying hard to avoid sending mixed signals about the possibility of a new round of Iran talks. In a story published in today’s Times, the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren reports the Israeli government sent out an email on Monday to every one of the country’s embassies and consulates saying that they had no knowledge of the proposed talks and admonishing their diplomats to keep their mouths shut about the issue.

As Rudoren pointed out in her piece, despite the White House denials, the president contradicted himself in the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney on Monday night since he said at one point that the Times story was “not true” and then said his policy was to encourage “bilateral discussions with the Iranians.” That seemed to signal that the Times was operating with correct information. That poses a dilemma for Israel. Netanyahu knows that it makes no sense for him to have yet another public brawl with President Obama on the eve of his re-election fight. Yet he also understands the danger of the U.S. being drawn into yet another pointless round of talks that will only serve to buy the Iranians more time to achieve their nuclear ambition. Thus, while there’s no doubt that Israel has good reason to be concerned about whether more U.S. diplomacy will let Iran off the hook, Netanyahu has decided to play this hand very close to his chest.

Rudoren’s piece is, in part, a portrayal of the difficulty that any Israeli government has in speaking with one voice even on the most crucial national security issues. Members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet, as is the case with any Israeli coalition, are inclined to shoot their mouths off about any issue even if they know nothing about it. Israel’s foreign service officers are also often blabbermouths and have been known to undermine the prime minister if they disagree with his politics, as many do with Netanyahu.

But the problem here is not so much the fractious nature of Israel’s political class as it is one of the government trying to navigate between the imperative of upholding the country’s interests on Iran and the necessity of trying to keep as little daylight as possible between the Jewish state and the Americans.

Netanyahu was widely lambasted last month for having the temerity to ask for a meeting with President Obama at which he could make his case for setting down “red lines” about the Iranian nuclear threat. Obama turned down both the “red lines” and the meeting, but rather than the president taking heat for his position, it was Netanyahu who was attacked for making the disagreement public. That was interpreted as a crude attempt to intervene in the U.S. election on behalf of Romney. But the truth is that throughout the last four years, Netanyahu has tried hard to avoid public disputes with the president. Though he has a well-earned reputation as a prickly customer, a fair reading of the situation shows that each dispute between the two nations has been the result of the president picking the fight rather than the prime minister. Whether the issue was settlements, borders or the status of Jerusalem, President Obama has staked out positions and rebuked the Israelis whenever he got the chance, though often it has been Netanyahu’s ripostes than drew the attention of the press.

Israel’s official position is that any talks must be predicated on ending the nuclear threat rather than merely extracting promises from Iran that can easily be broken. But Netanyahu has to know that a second Obama term is likely to begin with yet another attempt at outreach to Iran that doesn’t bode well for Israel’s hopes of tightening the pressure on the Islamist regime. Though the president seemed to alter his stand on the issue during the last debate to one that would demand an end to Iran’s nuclear program rather than merely stop its enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade level, the Israelis are rightly suspicious that a more lenient stance is likely to come out of any discussion with the Iranians. Yet Netanyahu understands that having already stuck his head out on the “red lines” issue, he’s in no position to take the bait and involve himself in another losing fight with Obama.

The president is sticking to his denials about post-election Iran talks in order to enhance his chances of holding onto wavering Jewish voters in swing states. But Netanyahu probably isn’t under any illusions about what will follow if the president wins. And no one else should be either.

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