Talks with Iran by September?

Talks with Iran by September?

Let’s try to sort out what happening on the front of dealing with Iran’s pesky nuclear program.

In Italy, the G-8 countries took a stab at addressing the issue, but the result is, well, less than clear.

First, here’s President Obama’s take, from a news conference on Friday in L’Aquila:


Let’s try to sort out what happening on the front of dealing with Iran’s pesky nuclear program.

In Italy, the G-8 countries took a stab at addressing the issue, but the result is, well, less than clear.

First, here’s President Obama’s take, from a news conference on Friday in L’Aquila:

“This notion that we were trying to get sanctions or that this was a forum in which we could get sanctions is not accurate. …

“There was the agreement that we will reevaluate Iran’s posture towards negotiating the cessation of a nuclear weapons policy. We’ll evaluate that at the G20 meeting in September. And I think what that does is it provides a time frame. The international community has said, here’s a door you can walk through that allows you to lessen tensions and more fully join the international community. If Iran chooses not to walk through that door, then you have on record the G8, to begin with, but I think potentially a lot of other countries that are going to say we need to take further steps. And that’s been always our premise, is that we provide that door, but we also say we’re not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of a nuclear weapon, the breach of international treaties, and wake up one day and find ourselves in a much worse situation and unable to act.

“So my hope is, is that the Iranian leadership will look at the statement coming out of the G8 and recognize that world opinion is clear.”

A lot of verbiage, but Obama seems to be saying that “other steps” — i.e., sanctions — will be taken if Iran doesn’t take up the offer to negotiate by September. In so saying, Obama is hinting at, but not exactly saying, that Iran has until September to start talking. Earlier, in May, he’d suggested that Iran also has until the end of 2009 or early next year to make progress toward a deal, so in a sense Obama is setting not one but two very rough deadlines: one for Iran to sit down and talk and one for Iran to convince the United States it’s ready to make progress.

At least one Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister, signalled that Tehran might not be averse to opening the dialogue with the US. The Washington Post portrayed Velayati’s comments thusly, after first referring to the surprise release of five Iranian diplomats seized by US forces in northern Iran in January 2007:

“The surprise release came a day after unusually positive comments about President Obama by a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said Obama had tried to remain silent on the country’s election outcome.

“The comments suggest that Iran’s decision makers are still interested in discussing possible diplomatic relations with the Obama administration. ‘America accepts a nuclear Iran, but Britain and France cannot stand a nuclear Iran,’ Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, said in an interview on state television on Wednesday.

It’s true that Iran has been painting the UK and France as the evildoers, and Velayati’s comments seem especially positive toward the US — though he’s wrong to suggest that the United States “accepts a nuclear Iran.” Still, it’s something.

So what about the G-8 — and Russia? And China, which isn’t even part of the G-8?

Here’s what the G-8 actually said. While describing its “impatience” and suggesting it would review the Iran file when it meets in September, the G-8 said:

“We remain committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. We sincerely hope that Iran will seize this opportunity to give diplomacy a chance to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue. We recognize that Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear programme, but that comes with the responsibility to restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear activities.”

The G-8 statement seems open to interpretation. Here’s Time magazine’s take:

“When it came to Tehran’s nuclear program, which President Barack Obama sees as the overriding strategic issue between the U.S. and Iran, the leaders struck a milder tone, urging negotiations and underscoring Iran’s rights to a civilian nuclear program. It was the clearest indication yet that despite the postelection violence in Iran, Obama intends to stick to his strategy of offering carrots before sticks for handling Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

As Velayati pointed out, both the UK and France were far more given to bluster about Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps it’s a sign that, during his pre-G-8 visit to Russia, Obama figured out that he isn’t likely to get Russia to go along with stronger sanctions, even in the wake of the post-June 12 crackdown in Iran. And China seems utterly uninterested.

Reuters described Velayati as “Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top adviser on international affairs,” and quoted his tough stance:

“Britain and France would want a weakened Iran at the negotiating table and are after the complete stoppage of Iran’s nuclear activity. But the Islamic Republic of Iran will be present at the scene even more strongly than yesterday and will not retreat even one step from its peaceful nuclear activity.”

It’s worth pointing out that two days before the June 12 election in Iran, Senator John Kerry said that Iran has the right to enrich uranium, i.e., not just the right to “peaceful use of nuclear energy,” as Obama says, but the inherent right to enrich its own fuel.

The Russians aren’t likely to go along with tougher sanctions on Iran. A few days ago, Russian President Medvedev said as much:

“If I understand correctly, the United States would like to establish more open and more direct relations with Iran. We support this choice. It would be counter-productive to resort to other sanctions.”

So, despite Iran’s brutal repression of pro-democracy demonstrators, and the sweeping arrests of supporters and advisers to Mir Hossein Mousavi and his allies, it’s not impossible that serious talks get underway by this fall. Cross your fingers.

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