Robert Dreyfuss

Robert Dreyfuss


Your Diplomat piece looks at the behind-the-scenes negotiating between Iran and the 5+1. You argue that it’s going relatively well?

I do think things are going relatively well in the Iran talks, though the emphasis should be on “relatively.” A lot can still go wrong, starting with the very real possibility that a small incident, say, a minor clash at sea in the Persian Gulf or something like the capture by Iran of sailors aboard a vessel that strays into Iranian waters, could escalate to a much bigger confrontation. (That’s why people such as Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Centcom commander, have advocated a sort of U.S.-Iran hotline and formal procedures for at-sea incidents.)

Compared to 2008, when there were no talks at all, things are much, much better.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Problem is, the Obama administration isn’t likely to make the sort of concessions that Iran needs to create what Iranian diplomats and many American analysts call a “win-win” outcome. To succeed, the United States must first formally accept Iran’s right-to-enrich, at least to 5 percent, and second lift some (not all) of the economic sanctions against Iran that have been imposed unilaterally by the United States and the European Union. Neither one of those is likely to occur in the midst of a U.S. presidential election in which Mitt Romney is already accusing Obama of being soft on Iran.

Iran, too, before its 2013 presidential election, isn’t likely to make the concessions that it must, namely, complete transparency in its program, opening various closed sites to the IAEA, allowing interviews with scientists, and more. But both countries are sending signals that they’re willing to engage in a step-by-step solution, whose first step will be an expanded version of the October, 2009, deal over the more highly enriched uranium ostensibly for Iran’s medical reactor in Tehran.

Another Diplomat contributor, Meir Javedanfar, told France 24 TV Wednesday that not only did he favor including Iran in Syria talks, but he also thought that Obama’s early talks with Iran should be seen as a success, in that they sidelined hardliners in Iran who said the U.S. is intransigent. Do you agree with that assessment?

I think that the talks may have sidelined hardliners in both countries.

We don’t know a lot about Iran’s hardliners. Many people argue that the chief hardliner in Teheran, and also the chief decision maker, is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. It was he, it seems, who overruled those – including President Ahmadinejad – who supported the 2009 agreement. But, to the extent that he rules by consensus, the continuing American support for talks may lead Khamenei to support some sort of step-by-step deal now, or at least to favor continuing the negotiations. On the other hand (and contrary to the views of American hawks) the economic sanctions imposed on Iran are fodder for hawks in Iran; ditto, revelations about cyber attacks and Mossad’s role in assassinating five scientists. But there are signs that pragmatists, including Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are stirring once again.

Meanwhile in the United States, the talks and the sanctions have made the neoconservatives virtually irrelevant. They bluster, of course. But as long as the talks are going on, it’s absolutely impossible for them to make a credible argument for war against Iran. And because sanctions, by their very nature, are designed to take months or years to work, the pro-war argument is further weakened. Indeed, that may have been Obama’s goal all along–namely, to keep talking through the November election.

You mentioned in an email that there was a lot of confusion about these negotiations. Why do think there is so much confusion?

The principal reason for the confusion is that the real basis for a deal is what’s said behind the scenes: at the talks, in one-on-one discussions between the United States and Russia, the U.S. and China, and elsewhere, and not in the actual positions put forward by the two sides. In public, at least, there hasn’t been much give on either side, and the recently released Iranian strategy document looks bleak on the surface. But, quietly, diplomats are signaling that there is indeed room for compromise, and the fact that the talks are now being conducted out of the media spotlight, by technical experts, is a good sign that something might actually be accomplished. While a breakthrough is extremely unlikely before next summer, an interim accord over the 20-percent-enriched fuel might be worked out.

Meanwhile, those who want to spin the results of the talks one way or the other – especially the hawks, who continually emphasize Iran’s seeming resistance to a deal – add to the confusion. Also adding to the confusion are Obama Administration officials, who have determined that they must look tough and decisive in an election year, even if they’re prepared to make concessions later on.

There’s a long road ahead. The talks may stall, break down, restart, and stall again. But in the end, because neither side wants war, the diplomats will be plopping their briefcases on tables around the world for many months to come.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief