Talks on Iran's nuclear program will resume in September, and despite the war bluster from neocons and the far right, the Obama administration seems prepared to try once again.
From discussions with US officials, here's what I've gleaned about the administration's policy on Iran. First, there is no appetite whatsoever, and no serious consideration, being given to a military attack on Iran. Not even Dennis Ross, the hawkish aide at the National Security Council, brings up the possibility of a military strike, US officials tell me. Second, they say, sanctions against Iran may or may not impact Iran's decision-making over its nuclear program, and it's unlikely that sanctions can work effectively, but in any case sanctions are designed for their long-term impact, over years and not weeks or months, so the latest round of sanctions isn't designed to have immediate impact on how Iran approaches talks later this summer. Which means that hawks who call for setting a tight deadline for the sanctions to work are simply trying to use the sanctions as a stepping-stone to war. Obama isn't listening.
Finally, US officials say, Obama has consistently supported engagement with Iran since the campaign of 2008. He didn't abandon the policy of engagement and diplomacy under withering attacks from Hillary Clinton in 2008, and he didn't abandon under the firestorm of criticism by the likes of the American Enterprise Institute and The Weekly Standard in 2009. Problem is, Iran didn't or couldn't respond positively to Obama's offer to engage, beyond the October, 2009, breakthrough in which Iran agreed to ship most of its enriched uranium to France and Russia for reprocessing. That accord broke down when Iran's fractured political system proved incapable of implementing it.
Now the talks are back on track, it appears.
The State Department announced yesterday that it is prepared to re-engage and restart the aborted talks over the deal reached last October concerning the enriched uranium for Tehran's research reactor. This is a big deal. Said P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman:
"We obviously are fully prepared to follow up with Iran on specifics regarding our initial proposal involving the Tehran research reactor…as well as, you know, the broader issues of trying to fully understand the nature of Iran's nuclear program. We hope to have the same kind of meeting coming up in the coming weeks that we had last October."
According to US officials, the new talks are likely to begin at the technical level. But they could quickly escalate to more senior officials.
Catherine Ashton, the chief negotiator for the European Union, also said that the EU—which is represented by the UK, France and Germany in the so-called P5 + 1—is ready to start talking again, and she raised the possibility that the talks could expand to broader issues:
"I've made it clear…that we would like those talks to resume quickly and that we would be very clear that the issue on the table is Iran's nuclear weapons capability and approach. That is the issue. All other issues can be discussed later."
Significantly, Iran has reportedly told Turkey that it is prepared to halt further enrichment of uranium from 3-5 percent to 20 percent (the level needed for the Tehran medical research reactor) in hope of restarting the accord reached last October in Geneva. If so, that's a big deal, too, since Turkey and Brazil have been actively engaged in trying to broker a deal with Iran. The hard work by those two countries was disparaged by many in the United States, but it seems to have paid off. Reports AFP:
Iran pledged to halt enriching uranium if world powers agree to a nuclear fuel swap deal it signed with Turkey and Brazil, a newspaper on Thursday quoted Turkey's foreign minister as saying.
The assurance came after Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki held talks with his Turkish and Brazilian counterparts Ahmet Davutoglu and Celso Amorim on Sunday in Istanbul, Milliyet newspaper reported on its website.
The Iranians have also agreed to start talking again in September. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who supported the October deal but failed to get backing either from Ayatollah Khamenei or from the reformist opposition for it, says that Iran will re-enter talks, as CNN reports:
Iran is ready for "effective cooperation" to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an interview with state media.
"We said that we will talk with P5+1 as of early September, but there are some conditions," Ahmadinejad told Press TV on Monday. "One of the conditions is that others should be present in the discussions as well."
What does this all mean? It means that despite the huffing and puffing from some quarters, diplomacy is back on track. In both Iran and the United States, there are powerful voices being raised against the idea of accommodating the other side, so talks won't be easy. As I've written consistently since 2009, the talks may go on for many months, if not years. But the administration, so far, seems prepared to see it through.