Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Talks with Iran

by Elliott Abrams
April 14, 2012


Happy talk is one of the great concerns we should all have about the talks with Iran in Istanbul, which just concluded with an agreement to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad.

What happened in Istanbul? Judging from the account in the New York Times, not much. The EU’s Lady Ashton says the talks were “useful and constructive,” but there is no real reason to believe this. The Times continues:

The decision to meet again appeared to reflect what European and American officials saw as a serious commitment from Iran to negotiate. However the initial statements from the delegates after the talks ended did not suggest that any concrete proposals or confidence-building measures had been made or agreed to.

Right. In fact, the problem is made even more obvious in this comment:

“I don’t think they would come if they weren’t serious,” one Western diplomat said.

Really? Looking back on all the negotiations with the North Koreans, including those of the Obama Administration (and those led in the Clinton Administration by Under Secretary of State Sherman, who also led the U.S. delegation in Istanbul), would we judge that the North Koreans “wouldn’t have come if they weren’t serious?”

Serious about what, one might ask? About delaying a possible Israeli military strike, or about negotiating an end to their own nuclear program? The fact that there appear to have been no concrete proposals discussed, yet the next meeting is delayed now for five weeks, suggests skepticism about Iranian “seriousness.”

The late May meeting will be in Baghdad, because that is where Iran wants it to take place. What will happen there? The Times notes that

There will be enormous pressure on the parties for the Baghdad meeting, since very little of substance appeared to have been discussed here. The Istanbul meeting was intended, according to the six powers, mainly to test Iran’s willingness to engage in a serious process to resolve doubts about whether its nuclear program was aimed at producing nuclear weapons.

This is a bit mysterious: how was it that Iran’s seriousness was tested in a meeting where no concrete proposals appear to have been made, much less agreed to? Those diplomats who leaked to the Times spoke about some things Iran might be asked to do, perhaps in the next meeting. “While those measures do not appear to have been agreed to, the talks at least did not end in failure,” said the Times. How could they end in failure if Iran’s only purpose, and the key purpose of the P5+1 diplomats as well, was only to have another meeting? It appears that all present have at least one common goal: making an Israeli strike harder. This suggests that the next meeting will not “end in failure” either; it will agree to yet another meeting, presumably in July. After all, if concrete proposals are tabled one mustn’t rush the Iranians; they must have time to take them home to Tehran and think them through.

It is hard to know what the Iranians make of all this, except perhaps that diplomacy is fun. Note that the head of the U.S. delegation, Wendy Sherman, requested a private one-on-one meeting with the head of the Iranian delegation. As I write this, there are conflicting reports as to whether her request was accepted or rejected, but all accounts are very clear on one point: she was the one asking, not Saeed Jalili. This action ensures that the United States appears to Iran as a suitor, anxious for these talks to succeed–and apparently more anxious than is Iran.

It will take a few days and more leaks to find out what transpired in Istanbul. Perhaps there is reason to be hopeful, but from what we can see today that depends on what you are hoping for: stopping Israel, or stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    What the Iranians are “serious” about is stalling . To the Obama administration , appearances trump results every time !

  • Posted by David Turner

    Ten years of delay by two consecutive US administrations suggests not that the Iranians are delaying, or even toying with American presidents, but that American presidents are afraid of Iran. No, not that the US could not end the nuclear program, even defeat the weak and outdated Iranian military… eventually, maybe. After all, two failed US engagements… ?

    Even short-term memory confirms that the US military under the past two secretaries of defense, not just support by but encouraged by the past two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (endless reminders from the warriers of, “unintended consequences”) suggest that not just were our presidents faint-hearted in testing our military mettle agains yet another roaring mouse, but our generals also fear another possible (likel?) failure of arms.

  • Posted by Dan

    We’ll soon find out amid all this idle chatter whether Israel will keep Obama, the Iranians and the “international community” honest.

  • Posted by Solomon

    What a shame! The destiny of the World is in hands of tiny Israel. And “great defenders of democracy” – USA, Europe and Japan are doing their best to stop – no, no, no, not Iran, but Israel from actions.

  • Posted by hass

    Iran is a “threat” and has been for over 30 years now, or so we’re told. I can’t think of a better argument to change our policies of sanctions and coersion, can you? I mean, if that was what it took to turn a country into a non-threatening democracy, Cuba should be a shining example, right? But is it? No, instead the NeoCons and pro-Israeli agents continue to lead the US down the path of war.

  • Posted by TJP

    President Obama often talks about his grandfather and the WW2 generation. He doesn’t ever talk about the almost failures associated with isolationist and appeasement supporters who allowed fascism to almost achive their goals of aggression. Now I don’t want people equating Iran with Nazi Germany (although at times it seems they fall over themselves to shoot off there mouths like Hitler about the dangers of the Jewish people). After all the work of getting sanctions in place it seems like we now want to back track. The President has said publicly that Iran cannot be permitted to have a nuclear weapon but does that mean they can have the capability to construct one in a very short time. What comfort does this give the nations who see Iran as a national threat. Even if contaiment is desired as a national security policy how can our current attitude convince the hot heads in Iran we need to be taken seriously. I can’t help feel the ghost of history have revisited us. It seems like we have forgotten the lessons of Munich or Danzig. We can’t return to 1938 or 1939. We must make this a new lesson for our times. Our desire for a peaceful outcome must not entail in making Iran far stronger than we could possible accept. The world deserves better and we deserve better from not only our diplomats but the whole national security team. I hope the President has done his homework and read a bit more about the efforts of FDR during the years prior to Pearl Harbor. This time period has a lot to offer in terms of relevance to this issue.

  • Posted by Peter Theroux

    Very nice companion piece to your fuller treatment of this in the very wonderful WS commentary “Negotiating With Iran, 1979 and 2012.” Of course, for an even deeper dish on the Islamic Republic’s innate distortion and dishonesty in negotiations, see “Guests of the Ayatollah.”

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