Don’t take too seriously the furious denials coming from Washington and Tehran about this weekend’s bombshell New York Times story reporting that the United States and Iran have agreed “in principle” to have direct, one-on-one talks after the election.
Both countries’ leaderships, sadly, have reasons to deny any such agreement, in public.
But the report ought to be filed under good news, since presumably the whole point of President Obama’s tough talk on Iran, keeping the military option “on the table,” imposing harsh economic sanctions, and meanwhile seeking talks was designed for precisely this result: that Iran’s ruling ayatollahs sit down with US diplomats. (Until now, all negotiations have been conducted under the auspices of the clumsy P5+1 world powers and Iran, but everyone knows that the real dispute was between Washington and Tehran. The Times reports that the agreement they report followed “intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials” over a prolonged period.)
In the real world, however, Obama won’t trumpet the notion that talks might take place, for exactly the reason that they’re reportedly scheduled to be held after the election: because the assemblage of hawks, neoconservatives, erstwhile Romney ‘advisers,” and the Romney campaign itself—including the bumbling, often confused candidate—would use the idea of talks as a weapon to mobilize ignorant American voters against the president.
And ignorant they are. A recent poll shows that a significant majority of Americans prefer war with Iran. As The New Republic reports:
The late September NBC/WSJ poll found that 58 percent of Americans believe the US should initiate military action to destroy Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons if Iran continues its pursuit of nuclear capabilities, compared to 33 percent who would oppose military action.
Why after the election? Because the only plausible deal between the United States and Iran would involve significant concessions by Washington in exchange for Iran’s decision to limit its nuclear program to low-enriched, fuel-grade uranium and to accept much stricter oversight by inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Among those concessions would be allowing Iran to continue enrichment on its own soil and an end to economic sanctions.
In the context of an election contest in the United States, such concessions would be almost unthinkable. That’s a troubling commentary on the state of American politics, since a US-Iran deal along those lines—which could be presented to domestic audiences in both countries as a “win-win” result—would mean that war is eliminated as an option. Still, hawks, including many of those in Romney’s camp, would waste little time seizing on concessions to Iran and turning them into yet another sign of President Obama’s alleged weakness abroad.
So far, Romney hasn’t condemned the idea of direct talks himself, but allies—including the usual suspects, such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R.-S. Car.) and some Israelis—say that one-on-one talks with Iran are a bad idea. United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a neoconservative group of Iran-watchers—whose leaders include several former top officials of the George W. Bush administration—warned Obama against lifting sanctions.
“In any negotiations with Iran, the ‘easing’ of sanctions must not a bargaining chip for Iranian half-measures,” said the UANI statement. “On multiple occasions, the Iranian regime has used the promise of negotiations to buy time in order to further develop its nuclear program and avoid economic pressure. US policymakers must not succumb to this tactic.”
In a nasty editorial, entitled “The Iran Talks Gambit,” The Wall Street Journal lambasts the president for supposedly leaking the report to the Times to make himself look like a peacemaker, which is at least an indication that the hawks are concerned about plopping down on the pro-war side of the fence. As the Journal opines:
Someone senior clearly was bragging about the one-on-one deal, and probably because the source or sources thought it would help Mr. Obama. The timing also is suspicious coming before Monday’s foreign-policy debate, and while the White House is on defense about its security failures in Benghazi. The Times’s dispatch treated the news as a diplomatic breakthrough that could make Mr. Obama look like a peacemaker and put Mitt Romney on the spot. The safe bet is that something is going on that the President hopes to unveil formally after the election.
We’ll see, in tonight’s debate, how this plays out.