Slow-Motion Train-Wreck Watch

If train wrecks really happened in slow motion, observers might have time to note carelessness and irrelevance in the human actors involved. Metaphorical train wrecks certainly afford us such opportunities. The State Department bracketed a busy weekend for the Iran problem with a bit of both. In the daily briefing on Friday, spokesman Robert Wood responded to a point-blank question on why we are stretching out the time line on negotiations with this affirmation:

QUESTION: Then why stretch it out? I mean, isn’t it quite clear that they’re not going to do this?

Iran had already, last week, given the IAEA director general a “no,” rejecting the P5+1 proposal to ship Tehran’s low-enriched uranium out of the country and offering a counterproposal: to exchange higher-enriched uranium for Iran’s current stock, simultaneously and inside Iran. In support of this negotiating ploy, the regime launched a major joint-forces exercise over the weekend, punctuating it with air-defense drills around the nuclear sites. In case the message was unclear, a senior Revolutionary Guard official emphasized the “deterrence power” of Iran’s ballistic missiles and threatened Tel Aviv with them. Meanwhile, President Lula da Silva of Brazil, with Ahmadinejad at his side, affirmed Iran’s right to civil nuclear technology and criticized “attempts to isolate Iran,” a condemnation that included the imposition of further sanctions.

So it’s not clear what gave Wood hope that Iran might reconsider. Monday’s laconic briefing from Ian Kelly projected a peculiar air of detachment, revealing mainly that there was no new policy guidance on Iran since Friday. There were some laughs, however. Kelly alluded, in suggesting that Iran seize a “fleeting opportunity,” to Friday’s thrice-repeated theme that the diplomatic window for Iran won’t be open forever. This led to a humorous exchange in which the word “fleeting” was suggested to amount to “new guidance.”

Surreal levity aside, Iran’s strategic wisdom in making a counterproposal, to which the P5+1 will have to take time in responding, has probably guaranteed that “fleeting” will not accurately describe the window bounded by negotiations. What the State Department has to show for eight years of business-as-usual negotiations is an Iran much closer to a working nuclear weapon. Robert Wood, in that sense, was exactly right: as long as we have a diplomacy-only approach, it is up to Iran. The only way to change that is to pose the credible threat of involving a different department of the U.S. government.