The smoke signals coming from the first session of the reconvened P5+1 talks in Geneva today don’t tell us much about whether Iran’s charm offensive is succeeding. The Iranians presented a plan to the group of negotiators representing the members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany that will do little to alter their drive to gain a nuclear weapon. Tehran is counting on the ardent desire of the Obama administration for an end to the confrontation over the issue echoed by some (though perhaps not all) of its European partners to enable them to at least draw out the negotiations over the coming months if not to fool the West into signing onto a deal that will be easily evaded by the ayatollahs.
So far, we have little indication as to whether the U.S. is willing to accept the sort of “bad deal” that Secretary of State John Kerry, let alone Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, has warned against. But there is one thing that we know. The reason why the negotiations are so critical is that over the past several years Iran has made so much progress toward the completion of a bomb that there isn’t time for a long drawn out diplomatic process. As the New York Times reports:
On Monday, a senior American official said that the United States wanted Iran to take steps that were “transparent and verifiable” to constrain its program and to assure the West that it was not intending to produce a nuclear bomb.
Iran’s nuclear efforts had advanced so much, the American official added, that Iran needed to take stops now to halt or even reverse its nuclear program so there was time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.
It’s fair to point out that American officials have spent the last five years persuading those who are worried about the nuclear threat reassuring us that there is plenty of time to talk about it and that the “window of diplomacy” was still open. To that end, the Obama administration has wasted years on laughable attempts to engage the Islamist regime and on diplomacy aimed at assembling a weak international coalition willing to impose sanctions on Iran and a diplomatic process that consistently flopped. Thus, if Iran is so much closer to realizing its dream of obtaining a genocidal weapon and making diplomacy difficult it is only because they have successfully manipulated a U.S. administration that wanted to be deceived. That’s something to be taken into consideration as we observe the ability of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to persuade the West to restart diplomacy almost as if the past decade of talks had never occurred.
While the details of the Iranian proposal were not made public, the regime’s representatives have made it clear that they have no intention of exporting their existing stockpile of enriched uranium or of halting their production of more nuclear fuel. But even if the West rejects, as they likely will, the Iranian proposal, there is little doubt that the talks will continue. But the Iranians have already scored a triumph by getting the U.S. to concede their right to a nuclear program, as President Obama said at the United Nations last month, albeit one whose purpose is peaceful. So long as Iran keeps enriching and their existing supply remains within their borders, they retain the capacity to quickly repossess it and get it up to military grade thus rendering the safeguards proposed by Western negotiators meaningless.
Most of those pushing for the new talks because of their belief in Rouhani’s supposed moderation have emphasized the need to turn the page on the failure of past diplomatic endeavors with Iran. But it is precisely because the Iranians have been so good at deceiving the West before that skepticism should be the main theme of American diplomacy with Iran.
This is, after all, not the first time that a president came into office determined to push diplomacy on this issue. When President Obama arrived at the White House in January 2009, he acted as if his predecessor had never tried to reach out to the Iranians. Though the Iranians had repeatedly stiffed the Bush administration’s efforts to cut a nuclear deal with them (with Rouhani being the point man in the deception at one point), President Obama insisted that the U.S. had to restart the process at square one as his outreach efforts were employed.
If rather than ignoring the past in 2009, Obama had built upon the experiences of the past the U.S. might not be in the difficult position in which it now finds itself with little margin for error when it comes to Iran. Had tough sanctions been imposed in 2009 rather than waiting until 2012, not only would the Islamist regime be far weaker, they would also be approaching nuclear talks without having used that time to build up its supply of enriched uranium.
The point of rehashing this history is not so much to blame the president for leaving the world so little margin of error on this threat — though he certainly deserves it — but to illustrate that there is a high price to pay for mistakes. Giving the diplomats more time to fail is not, as the administration seems to think, a cost-free exercise. Having spent five years failing to halt Iran, the same president is now embarking on a diplomatic process that may well prove to be open-ended and unlikely to succeed. Another such triumph for Iran may take the U.S. to the point where it may well be too late to use force to stop the Iranians. If so, instead of merely chalking that up to Iranian bad faith, we would do well to hold accountable those in the West that made this possible.