Up until now, Iran’s diplomatic charm offensive has focused on getting the West to think differently about the Islamist regime now that it has a new front man. But Tehran’s efforts are about to cut straight to the heart of the dispute that has made it an international pariah. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran was readying a new offer about its nuclear program intended to persuade the West to drop or at least to scale back the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. But lest there be much doubt about how gratefully the Iranian proposal will be received in Western Europe, according to a report in Haaretz, French and British diplomats are already telling Israel to be prepared for an interim deal that could give the ayatollahs exactly what they have been asking for all along.
The P5+1 negotiating group, consisting of the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany, will meet with the Iranians next week in Geneva to receive the Iranian proposal. This group has tried and failed repeatedly to get the Iranians to at least pretend they were interested in a nuclear agreement for years and has consistently failed. But the appearance on the scene of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is enough to convince all the parties, some of which were beginning to concede that the chances of an agreement were remote after the last P5+1 fiasco earlier this year, that a new accord is a real possibility. So long as the discussion was merely about the need for more diplomacy, those in favor of a new round of engagement with the Islamist regime had a strong position. But the decision of the Europeans to tell Israel in advance of the Geneva gathering that an “interim agreement” that could conceivably scale back sanctions may happen is a sign that there is more going on here than just giving diplomacy a last chance. The talk about accepting Iranian promises to cut down on their enrichment of uranium and easing sanctions in return is not merely weakening the West’s negotiating position. It is a clear sign that Rouhani’s outreach efforts are causing the Europeans to adopt a policy of appeasement that may well lead to the realization of a nuclear threat they have long feared.
President Obama and other administration figures have defended the decision to revive the P5+1 talks as merely a case of the West doing its due diligence to see if diplomacy deserved another chance after several years of humiliating failures. In theory, that’s a reasonable point of view. But with European diplomats already warning Israel that their governments are prepared to accept a deal that stops way short of ending all Iranian enrichment of uranium, the effort is taking on the appearance of a decision to back away from pressure on Iran rather than merely a last gasp of diplomacy before sanctions are tightened and the threat of force is contemplated.
The Iranian proposal strikes a familiar chord with those who have been following the farcical series of negotiations with Iran that started more than a decade ago. The Iranians have often talked about accepting limits on how much uranium they could enrich or even about agreeing to transport some of it out of the country only to always renege at the last minute. That was the tactic when Rouhani headed his country’s nuclear negotiating team and he has bragged about his success in hoodwinking the West on the issue.
It is bad enough if President Obama and his European partners allow themselves to be sucked into another dead-end process that could drag on for months if not longer and therefore give Iran another year to get closer to its nuclear goal. But if, as the Euros are signaling, the P5+1 group is prepared to accept a deal that will allow Iran to retain its nuclear capability–albeit with restrictions that will supposedly make it impossible for them to build a bomb–the problem is even bigger than that.
A decision to leave Iran’s nuclear program, and even its enrichment process, in place will be justified as a measure that will still prevent them from getting a bomb. But as the West learned to its sorrow when dealing with a far less powerful or dangerous opponent like North Korea, such agreements can be evaded. Anything less than a complete shutdown of the enrichment process is more or less a guarantee that, like the North Koreans, sooner or later Iran will be able to get its bomb.
Just as serious is the possibility of loosening sanctions in exchange for such unsatisfactory halfway measures.
It should be remembered that it took years for Congress to pressure President Obama into agreeing to and then implementing tough sanctions on Iran as well as years for him to persuade the international community to back watered-down versions of the U.S. sanctions program. Once they are loosened, it will be difficult if not completely impossible for them to be revived. The Europeans have little appetite for this conflict and are desperate to find a way out of it. The same may well be true of President Obama, despite the tough rhetoric he continues to employ against Iran. But even if he doesn’t buy into the Iranian offer, if it results in a breakup of the West’s solid front on Iran, the Iranians may be home free either way.
Neither the president nor the Europeans wish to be accused of waving the white flag on Iran. But neither do they appear to have the will to resist the temptation offered by Rouhani’s PR efforts and to instead keep their promises on Iran. Whether next week’s talks result in a weakening of sanctions in exchange for Iranian lies or merely the wasting of more weeks and months, the scene appears to be set for Western appeasement of the ayatollahs.