April 19, 2012
The Obama administration faces two dangers in its nuclear negotiations with Iran, which began in a burst of optimism last weekend after the two sides managed to get through a day and a half of talks without anyone walking out.
One danger, of course, is that the talks could fail. The other is that they might succeed.
Failed talks would lead to calls for airstrikes by the U.S. or Israel on Iran's nuclear installations. But even if the talks succeed — or, more precisely, if they succeed only part way — any agreement that comes out of them is certain to draw fire.
If Iran comes to the next round in May offering to freeze its uranium enrichment in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions, the United States and its allies will have to reach agreement among themselves on how far they are willing to compromise with the mullahs in Tehran in hope of getting a broader agreement down the road.
And the deal-making will come in the middle of a tough U.S. election campaign, in which Republican candidate Mitt Romney has already accused President Obama of "weakness" where Iran is concerned. The United States, its European allies, Russia and China are asking Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium, to export the enriched uranium it has already made, to close the once-secret Fordow nuclear facility under a mountain near Qom and to give United Nations inspectors unfettered access to its sites.
Iran, for its part, wants an end to the array of foreign economic sanctions that have finally begun to cripple its economy, beginning with a delay in a European embargo on purchases of Iranian oil that's scheduled to begin July 1.
That's a big, ambitious list of goals on both sides, and coming to any agreement will take time and patience. The two chief negotiators, Saeed Jalili of Iran and Catherine Ashton of the European Union, have been repeating two phrases over and over: Any agreement will be "step by step" and will be achieved on the basis of "reciprocity," meaning each side will have to give a little.
The good news is that the Iranians appear more serious about making a deal than they have in the past. Yes, Jalili asked for an immediate suspension of new sanctions without anything in return; but when he was turned down, he returned to businesslike negotiations over the timetable and structure of the next round of talks.
It was also a good sign, U.S. and European officials said, that Jalili's title this time was personal representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In earlier negotiations, Jalili represented President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which allowed Khamenei to walk away from the results, as he did in 2009.
But the best sign of all may have been the ebullient way the Iranians spun the negotiations back home in Tehran. Jalili and other officials portrayed the talks as a victory for Iranian steadfastness, and repeatedly noted Khamanei's fatwa outlawing nuclear weapons as a sin. The deputy commander of the radical Revolutionary Guard said that "the West was forced to accept the reality that the Islamic Republic is not in pursuit of nuclear weapons," according to the Tehran Times. And Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he could live with a deal that halted uranium enrichment as long as Iran was assured nuclear fuel for medical isotopes.
It sounded like a public relations campaign to allow the Iranian leadership to portray any future compromise as exactly what Tehran has been asking for all along.
In Washington, Obama administration officials sounded more defensive than optimistic, insisting that no sanctions would be suspended unless Iran took real steps. "We haven't given away anything," Obama said in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's complaint that Iran had been granted "a freebie." And the administration emphasized that time is short for Iran to make a deal,
That's because the U.S. and its allies are properly wary that Iran might try to turn negotiations into a stalling exercise while it continues to amass nuclear fuel.
By diplomatic standards, these talks are on a fast track. Experts from both sides are supposed to exchange proposals over the next few weeks, followed by another high-level meeting May 23.
At that point, Iran may offer to make an offer, but it's likely to be a prickly, partial offer. The question for the United States and its allies, including Israel, will be whether they are willing to take that kind of yes for an answer. It will take patience and forbearance on all sides for these talks to succeed — and Obama will have to exercise that forebearance while under fire in an election campaign.
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