Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, left, in 2011. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
You have to admire Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, for his bluntness. In addressing the fact that the United States and Iran haven’t yet agreed to fix a date for talks on Tehran's nuclear program, he said that both sides ought to “stop behaving like little children.” In a press conference, Lavrov said:
“Some of our partners in the six powers and the Iranian side cannot come to an agreement about where to meet. We are ready to meet at any location as soon as possible. We believe the essence of our talks is far more important (than the site), and we hope that common sense will prevail and we will stop behaving like little children.”
Just weeks ago, in advance of the November election, it was widely reported that the United States and Iran had already agreed to convene private, one-on-one talks. And Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers have been going back and forth on when and where to meet. Nothing yet.
No wonder Moscow is frustrated.
Though there has been a lot of buzz about the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, because of his less-than-militant views about Iran, so far, if anything, Hagel is backing off his earlier (2001–11) statements opposing military force, opposing sanctions and calling for a quid pro quo for Iran. And President Obama, for all the optimism about talks—and his inauguration speech about settling conflicts peacefully—has this month signed yet another new set of onerous sanctions against Tehran. US officials told The Washington Post that “the new policies are closer to a true trade embargo, designed to systematically attack and undercut Iran’s major financial pillars and threaten the country with economic collapse.” Obama signed the legislation containing the sanctions, which were backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, despite have hinted that he might veto it.
Meanwhile, Iran has gone silent, refusing to set a date despite repeated requests from the P5+1. Perhaps that’s because the new sanctions signal that the United States won’t give Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for a deal. Perhaps Tehran wants to prove to the United States that its vaunted sanctions regime will not force Iran to make unilateral concessions at the bargaining table. Combined with Iranian internal divisions, as its own presidential election season gets underway before a vote in June, that could mean that for the next six months or so Ayatollah Ali Khamenei simply won’t be ready to talk. And others suspect that Iran is waiting to see how President Obama’s new national security team—with Senator John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan at the Central Intelligence Agency—will shape Obama’s stance at any talks. Most likely, internal disagreements among Iranians, months before a new president takes office, is what’s delaying Iran’s response.
If Iran is waiting for Hagel, it could be a long wait.
To be sure, during his career, both in and out of the Senate, Hagel—a conservative, realist-minded Nebraska Republican—was firmly to the left of Barack Obama, John Kerry and Joe Biden when they were senators together, refusing to co-sponsor the tough-minded Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007 that was co-sponsored by Obama, Biden and Kerry and voting against the extension of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act that was backed by Biden and Kerry. Hagel also voted against the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act, backed by Kerry and signed into law by Obama, and he voted against legislation designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a “terrorist” organization.
A compilation of Hagel’s remarks on Iran prepared by the US Institute of Peace reveals that Hagel has been firmly opposed to a military solution to the Iran crisis, and that he’s been highly skeptical of unilateral sanctions. “You cannot push the Iranians into a corner where they can’t get out,” said Hagel. “You’ve got to find some quiet ways—and you don’t do this in the press or by giving speeches—to give them a couple of face-saving ways out of this thing so they get something out of this, too.” He also added, “Unilateral sanctions rarely ever work. I just don't think the unilateral approach and giving war speeches helps the situation. It will just drive the Iranians closer together…. It escalates the danger of a military confrontation.”
It’s been widely reported that hawks, neoconservatives, and the Israel lobby in Washington have slammed Hagel hard for these and other comments. In conjunction with Israel-friendly members of Congress, they’ve warned Obama to reign in Hagel so as not to send a dovish signal to Tehran. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the pro-Israel think tank, warned bluntly that the White House should act quickly to make sure that Hagel backs away from his previous views on Iran and at least toes the administration’s tougher line. “If the White House does not take steps soon to correct that impression, the chances for a negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis will fall nearly to zero and the likelihood of Israeli military action will rise dramatically,” he wrote.
Indeed, within days of his nomination to become secretary of defense, Hagel was already backing away from his earlier views, meeting with senior Pentagon officials and influential senators who’ll vote on his confirmation to clarify his views on Iran, asserting that he supports broad international sanctions against Iran and that he believes that the military option ought to be “on the table.” Several Democratic senators who met with Hagel announced with satisfaction that the former senator from Nebraska had sufficiently backtracked or “clarified” his Iran views that he had earned their support—and their vote.
So Lavrov is right. Both sides are being childish. It’s time for both the United States and Iran to put their cards on the table.
Robert Dreyfuss last wrote about a soldier's guilt over the death of innocent Afghans.