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.