Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, left, in 2011. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
You have to admire Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, for his bluntness. In addressing the fact that the United States and Iran haven’t yet agreed to fix a date for talks on Tehran's nuclear program, he said that both sides ought to “stop behaving like little children.” In a press conference, Lavrov said:
“Some of our partners in the six powers and the Iranian side cannot come to an agreement about where to meet. We are ready to meet at any location as soon as possible. We believe the essence of our talks is far more important (than the site), and we hope that common sense will prevail and we will stop behaving like little children.”
Just weeks ago, in advance of the November election, it was widely reported that the United States and Iran had already agreed to convene private, one-on-one talks. And Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers have been going back and forth on when and where to meet. Nothing yet.
No wonder Moscow is frustrated.
Though there has been a lot of buzz about the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, because of his less-than-militant views about Iran, so far, if anything, Hagel is backing off his earlier (2001–11) statements opposing military force, opposing sanctions and calling for a quid pro quo for Iran. And President Obama, for all the optimism about talks—and his inauguration speech about settling conflicts peacefully—has this month signed yet another new set of onerous sanctions against Tehran. US officials told The Washington Post that “the new policies are closer to a true trade embargo, designed to systematically attack and undercut Iran’s major financial pillars and threaten the country with economic collapse.” Obama signed the legislation containing the sanctions, which were backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, despite have hinted that he might veto it.
Meanwhile, Iran has gone silent, refusing to set a date despite repeated requests from the P5+1. Perhaps that’s because the new sanctions signal that the United States won’t give Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for a deal. Perhaps Tehran wants to prove to the United States that its vaunted sanctions regime will not force Iran to make unilateral concessions at the bargaining table. Combined with Iranian internal divisions, as its own presidential election season gets underway before a vote in June, that could mean that for the next six months or so Ayatollah Ali Khamenei simply won’t be ready to talk. And others suspect that Iran is waiting to see how President Obama’s new national security team—with Senator John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan at the Central Intelligence Agency—will shape Obama’s stance at any talks. Most likely, internal disagreements among Iranians, months before a new president takes office, is what’s delaying Iran’s response.