On Wednesday, several top US officials who will be leading the American delegation to the talks with Iran gave a background briefing to reporters in Geneva on their perspective for the talks. It makes interesting reading, and I’m excerpting some highlights here, with my own comments:
The central question is: Will the United States (and the P5 + 1) acknowledge that Iran has the right to enrich uranium, but under appropriate international oversight by the IAEA? Will the United States insist that Iran suspend, or freeze, its enrichment program as part of the talks? And will the United States insist that Iran does not have that right, and never will? Judging by the following exchange, the answers are: Not yet, yes, and maybe. Read on:
QUESTION: I just wanted you to clarify, you’re saying suspension is the obvious confidence building measure, but you seem to leave the door open to say it’s not the only one. So essentially there might be a settlement in which Iran never stops enriching.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: No. I didn’t say that. Suspension is something that’s inscribed in five UN Security Council resolutions. It’s at the center of the so-called Way Forward proposal that the 5+1 have on the table. That remains very much our goal collectively in this group.
As I said, that’s not to suggest that there aren’t other steps that could be taken along the way that would help build confidence in Iranian intent, but suspension, as I said, and as it’s made clear in Security Council resolutions, remains our position.
QUESTION: It’s non-negotiable.
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: As I said, it’s laid out in five Security Council resolutions pretty clearly.
The fact that it’s laid out in “five Security Council resolutions” doesn’t give it Biblical or Quranic permanence. In the past, at least once, Iran did agree to freeze its uranium processing, but that was long ago, when they had only a tiny number of spinning centrifuges. Now there are more than 8,000. A freeze is very unlikely.
The US officials made clear that the talks are about Iran’s nuclear program, not about human rights in Iran — or about Iran’s grandiose vision of its global and regional role. That seems fine to me. Raising the human rights issue, or the results of the June 12 election and its aftermath, in which Iranian security forces brutally cracked down on the reformist, centrist, and conservative opposition to the regime, would only succeed in sending the Iranian delegation up the wall, for no good reason. Here’s the exchange:
QUESTION: It doesn’t sound like the U.S. government believes this is a forum in which to raise the human rights issue. A lot of people argue what happened in June in Tehran and throughout Iran has been sort of forgotten, neglected. Do you plan to raise that at all?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: We’ve made very clear, the administration has, the serious concerns that we have about human rights, freedom of expression issues in general, particularly since the elections in Iran. We’ve consistently and clearly raised concerns about detained Americans, who should be released. And so we’ll continue to do that and we’ll continue to look for opportunities to do that.
As I said, the focus of this group has been and I think will remain the nuclear issue, but we’ll continue to look for opportunities to press all of those points because I think they’re very real concerns for us and for our partners.
Encouragingly, the US officials suggested that there would be a chance for “sidebars,” or one on one discussions between Iranian and US diplomats. That’s good news, of course:
QUESTION: Under the format that you outlined, it sounds like you’re kind of expecting to be able to have a one-on-one meeting with the Iranians?
SENIOR U.S. OFFICIAL #1: We’ll see. I think there will be the opportunity, as I said, for sidebar conversations that could involve any of the 5+1 partners and the Iranians. That’s the way this is laid out. So we’ll see.
Worryingly, while the US officials did recognize that the talks won’t be quick and easy, they did come back to the foolish notion that there needs to be some finite deadline for the talks, which makes no sense at all:
I think it’s pretty safe to predict that this is going to be an extraordinarily difficult process. I doubt that it’s going to be measured in terms of one meeting, although we’ll see how the Iranians approach the meeting tomorrow.
The last thing I’d emphasize is that this, from the point of view of the United States, cannot be an open-ended process or talks just for the sake of talks. Especially in light of the revelations about Qom, we need to see, all of us need to see, practical steps and measurable results and we need to see them starting quickly.
I’m all for measurable results. But the talks will be judged not only by what Iran brings to the table, but by what the United States brings to the table, too. The Iranians might walk out in a huff along the way, and then come back. The US delegation might be recalled, i.e., walk out, if some dastardly insult is hurled by the Iranians. All that is circus. The real point is: there’s no crisis. It isn’t very urgent. The P5 + 1 has plenty of time (as the Russians and Chinese will make very clear) to settle this controversy diplomatically, and it will take as long as it takes.