It now looks like there is a real possibility that that talks between Iran, the United States, and the other world powers will resume next week, possibly in Turkey, over Iran’s nuclear program. That’s the good news. There’s lots and lots of bad news.
First, perhaps emboldened by the November 2 elections, various hawks, neoconservatives, and Republican hardliners are elbowing each other to demand Iranian blood. That’s odd because in the just-concluded election campaign, foreign policy was entirely absent, which means that the hawks can claim no mandate for a more belligerent approach to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China and other problems. But it hasn’t stopped some, including Senator Lindsay Graham, from going off the deep end.
Graham’s outburst, in particular, seemed almost deranged. At a November 6 forum in Canada, Graham openly called for the bombing of Iran not to halt its nuclear program, but to cripple it militarily and destroy its regime. War with Iran is a good idea, said Graham "not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime." In so doing, Graham echoed two other members of the Senate’s Holy Trinity Against the Axis of Evil, including Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John "Barbara Ann" McCain of Arizona. As I wrote recently, both Graham and Lieberman were sounding the war cries even before the election, too.
Along with Graham, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told Vice President Biden that only a military confrontation with Iran can work. "The only way to ensure that Iran will not go nuclear is to create a credible threat of military action against it if it doesn’t cease its race for a nuclear weapon," said Netanyahu, according to an aide to the prime minister. By "credible threat," Netanyahu means concrete military actions, such as moving aircraft carriers around, positioning bombers nearby, hardening air defenses in the Persian Gulf, and so on. Needless to say, all these measures have a momentum of their own, and they’re hardly conducive to actual negotiations.
Although Secretary of Defense Gates quickly shot back that a military showdown with Iran wasn’t necessary because economic sanctions against Iran are working, that’s the other part of the bad news. It’s well and good that neither Gates nor the US military command want war with Iran, recognizing the sheer insanity of the idea, but the problem is that the Obama administration seems to believe that because sanctions are hurting Iran it can afford to stall in the upcoming talks. Going into the talks—whether they occur in Geneva, Vienna, or Ankara—the administration hasn’t shown any sign that it has a strategy for success. By taking a hard line, by making demands that Iran isn’t likely to accept, the White House seems content with the idea of letting the onerous sanctions work their magic, squeezing Iran politically and forcing its leaders to strike a deal sooner or later. Problem is, there’s no reason to believe that sanctions will have that effect.
As Riccardo Redaelli, an Italian security expert who’s taken part in exploratory talks with Iranian officials, wrote: "Frankly, waiting and buying time, while putting hope in sanctions, appears to be a very fragile strategy, and for several good reasons. First, although they bite—and they most certainly do bite—it is unlikely that sanctions would prove decisive, especially with a country such as Iran, which has faced years of sanctions and isolation during more dangerous times. Second, it would be wise not to underestimate the ability of other countries such as China to support the Islamic Republic, even in the case of an embargo on gasoline and on refined petroleum derivates. Until few years ago, sanctions were perceived as a major threat by Iran; now they merely seem a risk that Iran can probably endure, due to its growing domestic production, new refineries under construction, and surplus production poured into its market by friendly states. Finally, instead of focusing on a new round of sanctions, it would be more useful to clarify whether sanctions really damage the hardliner political elite or whether they represent a sort of a ‘blessing in disguise’ for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps."
Can the talks work? Redaelli proposes the idea of having Iran use its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to fuel its recently opened nuclear power plant in Bushehr, and he says that several Western countries are leaning in that direction. The Iranians themselves have suggested reviving some version of the plan put forward earlier this year by Turkey and Brazil to send most of Iran’s LEU to Russia for reprocessing for a research reactor in Tehran. The Turks have offered their assistance in making the talks work. And last week I spoke to Jim Dobbins, a veteran, retired diplomat now at the Rand Corporation, who wasn’t optimistic about the talks, but who suggested that to build confidence between Iran and the United States, the American side ought to lift any and all restrictions on contacts between US and Iranian diplomats. Until now, American diplomats abroad aren’t allowed to meet or talk to Iranian diplomats unless they get special permission to do so, which limits US contacts with Iran on issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and drug trafficking. And Dobbins suggested that the United States seek to make direct contact with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who appears to be the most willing among Iran’s power elite for a deal.
Last week, I wrote a piece suggesting that ultimately the United States will have to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium, on its own soil, under appropriate safeguards. So far, there’s little or no sign that the administration gets it.