Such is the chasm between Washington and Tehran that last week’s comments by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei on President Barack Obama’s recent speech verged on geopolitical flirting: “We heard two days ago that the U.S. president said that (they) are not thinking about war with Iran,” said Khamenei. “These words are good words and an exit from delusion.” He also spoke of a “window of opportunity” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program — echoing President Obama’s sentiments in his address to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Nobody expects that the exchange marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship, of course, but both sides may have reasons to at least keep the other interested in a protracted courtship.Obama had certainly issued something of a diplomatic come-on, noting appreciatively in an interview with The Atlantic that the Supreme Leader had reiterated just weeks ago that nuclear weapons are “a sin against Islam” and that Iran doesn’t want them. “The point is that for them to prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons, is not inconsistent with what they’ve said,” Obama said. “So it doesn’t require them to knuckle under to us. What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements.”
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Such soothing words across the epic divide are hardly naive: Both men are well aware of the difficulty they’ll face in securing any rapprochement, and neither may be particularly interested in a long-term relationship. Obama emphasized that Iran would have to earn the trust of the international community regardless of its statements, and his Administration also painted Khamenei’s comments on nuclear weapons being “sinful” as if they had come in response to the growing pain inflicted by sanctions. (In fact, Khamenei was simply reiterating a position he’d first publicized in an August 2005 fatwa.) Khamenei scolded Obama for suggesting that sanctions would bring Iran to its knees, and warned that Iran would not bow under pressure and threats.
The fact that both sides are expressing some openness to tamping down tensions — and plan to resume nuclear talks through the format of the P5+1, a group comprising the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia that negotiates nuclear issues with Iran — has certainly reassured oil markets, which fell last week on the news of renewed negotiations after being ratcheted up by war talk. Curiously enough, though, whereas Iran is typically accused of “playing for time” at the negotiating table, this time around the P5+1 may have their own reasons for taking things slowly. While Iran is steadily acquiring the technological capability that would enable it to create a bomb, Western powers don’t believe Tehran is racing to build nuclear weapons. And they have become increasingly concerned in recent months about stopping Israel from launching a potentially disastrous war by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“We’ve waited for diplomacy to work, we’ve waited for sanctions to work,” thundered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned last week in Washington. “None of us can afford to wait much longer.” Netanyahu declared ominously that Israel could not entrust its security to others, and reserved the right to take military action against Iran without a green-light from its U.S. ally. Nonetheless, there are a number of indicators suggesting that he may be willing to give Obama more time. Despite the Israeli prime minister’s apocalyptic rhetoric likening Iran to Nazi Germany, he remains hesitant to start a war against the advice of his military and security chiefs — former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan in an extended CBS interview aired on Sunday bluntly challenged Netanyahu’s public saber-rattling, reiterating a view widely shared in Israel’s security establishment that attacking Iran now would be a mistake. All of Israel’s closest Western allies have urged it to refrain from doing so, and only one in five Israelis back military action independent of the U.S.
“Both Israel and the U.S. are conscious that Israel can conduct a raid [on Iran's nuclear facilities], but only the United States can conduct a campaign,” noted Dr. John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last week. “And it’s the latter that would be necessary in order to delay in any meaningful way Iran’s acquisition of a confirmed military nuclear capability.” Chipman also noted that an attack by either Israel or the U.S. would “incentivize” the Iranian leadership to begin covertly building nuclear weapons — a decision that Iran has not yet taken, as President Obama pointed out last weekend, in his own effort to tamp down talk of war. Obama said that he would be prepared to take military action to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, but emphasized that Iran is nowhere near that point, and argued that it was in the best interests of both Israel and the Western powers to seek a diplomatic solution and rely for now on sanctions to press Iran to cooperate.
Diplomacy is about to resume, of course, but a diplomatic “solution” may be some way off. “Officials in Berlin and Brussels are playing for time,” notes the German magazine Der Spiegel. It reports that European governments believe that undertakings provided by the Obama Administration have persuaded Israel not to attack Iran this year, despite Israeli denials. The Europeans, it says, plan to try to reverse the escalation towards confrontation with Iran in “a series of talks that will take place over a number of months”. Western leaders will insist that they want to see quick and concrete results, the German paper reports, but “in reality the Europeans are hoping that negotiations will continue until after the U.S. presidential election in November” — a point beyond which they believe President Obama will be less vulnerable to domestic political pressure to take a hard line.
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Skepticism of the “military option” for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program certainly gives Western governments a strong incentive to make a success of the diplomatic process they’re expected to relaunch next month. “We will have a good sense fairly quickly of how serious they are,” Obama said last Tuesday of the prospects of the talks. “There are steps that they can take that would send a signal to the international community, and that are verifiable. They know how to do it.”
Indeed. The Western powers will expect Iran to offer concrete confidence-building steps that can sustain a diplomatic process and reverse the slide towards confrontation. Simply demanding that Iran heed U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding a suspension of uranium enrichment until outstanding questions over its program have been clarified has failed for the past six years, and would be unlikely to have much success as a starting point for talks now. Instead, the initial focus of the process is likely be on a deal based on halting Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20% — ostensibly to fuel a medical research reactor, although this also marks a substantial step towards being able to produce bomb materiel. Deals focused on Iran giving up 20% enrichment have been floated previously, and that may well be an area in which a compromise can be achieved.
The diplomatic process is likely to see both sides table proposals and demand concessions. The Western powers will expect to see movement on issues of enrichment, the Iranians will want sanctions eased in exchange for whatever concessions they offer. The quid-pro-quo of the diplomatic process may be difficult for President Obama, especially in an election year. Congress is far more hawkish on the issue and appearing to ‘soften’ his stance could hurt the president. A diplomatic “solution” that settles a standoff that has bedeviled Western leaders for the past decade is unlikely to come in a matter of weeks or months. Instead, the process will involve a series of small but significant steps that could demonstrate the value and viability of a diplomatic process and help us avoid an election-year stampede into war. So long as neither side gets cold feet.