Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the UN General Assembly.(AP Photo/Mike Segar)
As the talks between Iran and the P5+1 get underway tomorrow, amid lots of promise and lots of talk about Iran’s new charm offensive and apparent readiness for a deal, it remains to be seen whether the administration of President Barack Obama has the diplomatic savvy and political clout to pull it off. Can Obama strike a deal with Iran that ignores and angers hardliners in Washington, including the Israel lobby, neoconservatives and hawks? Does Obama and his negotiating team—which, inexplicably, will not include Secretary of State John Kerry, even though Iran’s team will be led by its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif—understand Iran well enough that it can be sensitive to the requirements of President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif et al., especially since not a single top US official or diplomat has visited Iran, ever?
And the same can be said for Iran, too, which has its own influential hardliners and which also lacks a proper understanding of American politics and political culture, especially among Iran’s top clergy, few of whom have traveled outside of Iran or visited North America.
It doesn’t make one optimistic. The talks tomorrow, of course, are the start of a long journey, not the end of one. Iran, it appears, will advance an initial negotiating offer tomorrow, hopefully one designed to elicit a positive response from the P5+1. But there are countless stumbling blocks. Perhaps the biggest is how to design a set of confidence-building measures—called CBMs by acronym-happy diplomats—that allow Iran and the P5+1 to move toward a resolution that results in the deal that everyone knows is the win-win solution, if indeed a deal is to be struck. That deal, we’ve known for years, involves public recognition by the United States and its allies, and the rest of the P5+1, of Iran’s demand to retain the right to continue to enrich uranium, and to acquire and develop all of the components of a peaceful nuclear energy program. In exchange, it is believed by nearly all analysts, Iran will sign on to the Nonproliferation Treaty’s so-called Additional Protocol, submitting to much more intrusive and strict inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and, in addition, will accept limits on the degree to which it will enrich uranium and limits on the size of the stockpile it maintains.
There’s the deal. But the trick is getting there. A chief goal of Iran’s is an end to economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and an end to the parallel, but separate and unilateral, sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. It’s very unlikely—let’s say, there’s zero chance—that the United States will ease sanctions in return for statements, promises and other words on paper from Iran. On the other hand, there’s very, very little chance that Iran will make significant, unilateral concessions without getting in return absolute guarantees that sanctions will be removed. So, who goes first, who trusts whom, and how a step-by-step process can be put in place is what makes this hard.
Both Iran and the P5+1 can safely ignore Israel’s maximalist demands, namely, that there will be no deal until Iran shuts down its enrichment program, dismantles its centrifuges, closes its facilities, and exports its stockpile of uranium. Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bluster, Israel is increasingly isolated in its view of Iran, and no one takes seriously Israel’s dark hints about bombing Iran’s facilities without direct American support. As long as the United States and Iran are talking, Israel can’t do a thing, and Tehran knows it.
Still, reaching an agreement will take a lot of time, with lots of interim steps and, yes, CBMs.
The New York Times, in its report today, quoted two Iranian insiders, Abbas Aragchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and one of its negotiators, and Hamidreza Taraghi, a spokesman of sorts for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and taken together their comments suggest that a deal might be in the works. Said Aragchi:
“We need to move towards a trust-building road map with the Westerners. To them, trust-building means taking some steps in the nuclear case, and for us this happens when sanctions are lifted… Of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of enrichment, [but] the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line.”
“We now have a new negotiating team in place, which means business and has the full authority to come to an agreement. We will continue to enrich, but we can talk about the level of enrichment; we will continue to have our stockpile, but can discuss the size of that stockpile.”
According to Bloomberg, Zarif, the foreign minister, seemed miffed that Kerry wasn’t going to attend the talks. He said:
“I will present Iran’s proposal in the opening session and then my colleagues will carry on the talks. In order to decide about the details and starting procedure, we will probably need another meeting at the level of foreign ministries.”
The level of mistrust is high on both sides, and it isn’t clear, yet, that either side understands the other well enough to strike an accord. (The hawkish Washington Post, in an editorial today, notes that Iran seems to be moving in the right direction but then adds: “But the Obama administration should not necessarily be prepared to accept an Iranian “yes” for an answer, even if it is unqualified.”) One of the few Americans who may actually understand Iran is John Limbert, a former US diplomat who was one of the hostages held for 444 days in Tehran in 1979-1981, and who served recently as the State Department’s Iran desk officer. In a piece for the Middle East Institute, Limbert says:
Now officials will have to relearn how to handle more delicate tools that have grown rusty from long disuse. Since 1979 interactions between the two sides have consisted mostly of glaring at each other across an abyss and trading insults, threats, and empty slogans. Iran is part of an “axis of evil.” The United States is “world arrogance.” Thirty-four years of practice have made both sides creative at bashing the other. Sometimes the abuse goes beyond words, and an Iranian civilian airliner is shot down or hundreds of American marines are murdered in Beirut.
Limbert, who is fluent in Persian and who is married to an Iranian, suggests that listening, patience and controlled, judicious language will be critical in advancing the talks. He says:
Thirty-four years of mistrust will not disappear with one meeting, one exchange, or one telephone call. There will be setbacks and disappointments, and individuals and groups with special agendas will seek to sabotage an engagement process. Others, by design or mistake, will make ill-judged statements. What is important is not to give up after a setback, but to keep pursuing the goal of finding a way of talking that serves the interest of both sides.
And he points out the stupidity—he doesn’t use that word—of some of the language used by the Obama administration, including the president himself:
Diplomacy demands that we choose words with care. We do not have the luxury of venting in public. When an American official says publicly to a Senate committee that deception “is part of [Iranian] DNA” or when President Obama, shortly after his telephone call with President Rouhani, refers to the “Iranian regime,” they are using language that has no place in diplomacy. Such phrases belie the claim that the United States wants to deal with Iran on the basis of “mutual respect.”
It’s going to be a long road.
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