Back From the Brink: Iran and America Set for Talks?

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Back From the Brink: Iran and America Set for Talks?

While both sides have already denied it, talks could be a first step towards compromise. The road to negotiations though could be a long one.

A report that Iran has agreed to talk one-on-one with the United States after the November election roiled the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in its final two weeks, just one day before the two men engage in a 90-minute debate on foreign policy on Monday night.

Since the beginning of 2012, many analysts have argued that talks over Iran’s nuclear program wouldn’t be successful before the election. Indeed reports citing unnamed Western officials have said that Iran’s negotiators have told them as much themselves. That’s because the only plausible deal between the United States and Iran would involve significant concessions by Washington in exchange for Iran’s decision to limit its nuclear program to low-enriched, fuel-grade uranium and to accept much stricter oversight by inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Among those concessions would be allowing Iran to continue enrichment on its own soil and an end to economic sanctions.

In the context of an election contest in the United States, such concessions would be almost unthinkable. That’s a troubling commentary, perhaps, on the state of American politics, since a U.S.-Iran deal along those lines – which could be presented to domestic audiences in both countries as a “win-win” result – would greatly reduce the likelihood of war, and polls in the United States show little or no appetite for war with Iran. Still, hawks, including many of those in Romney’s camp, would waste little time seizing on concessions to Iran and turning them into yet another sign of President Obama’s alleged weakness abroad.

Following the report, first published in the New York Times, both countries denied that any one-on-one talks were agreed upon. And behind the scenes, former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers warned that chances for a U.S.-Iran meeting could be scuttled by the premature report. There have been widespread reports that the United States has engaged in what the Times called “intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials” for some time, and other sources, including the Wall Street Journal, reported that talks could begin as soon as November or December between Iran and the P5+1 powers with, Wendy Sherman, a top State Department official, and Said Jalili, the Iranian chief negotiator, leading negotiations on their respective sides.

It would be wrong to take the denials of a potential one-on-one meeting, from both the White House and from Iranian officials, at face value.

In the United States, President Obama does not want to appear too willing to engage in direct talks with Iran, at least until the election is over. In an effort to appear tough and unrelenting, on Sunday allies of the White House suggested that if the reports are true, it’s because the onerous sanctions and diplomatic isolation of Iran orchestrated by the Obama administration since 2009 are working. “For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition, and now, the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees,” said David Axelrod, top political adviser to the president’s reelection campaign.

But, as others have pointed out, it’s unlikely that Iran has caved under pressure. Though sanctions have severely undercut Iran’s oil exports and helped spark a collapse of Iran’s currency, the rial, this month, most analysts believe that Iran can weather the economic storm for months or even years depending on the size of its foreign currency reserves, which can be used to stave off a balance-of-payment crisis. Despite the economic, pressure, there has been very little sign of political unrest inside the country, and in any case, the regime in Tehran has the capacity to suppress unrest should it develop. So, if Iran has agreed to direct talks with the United States, it’s probably because the United States has unofficially told Tehran that it is willing to make the concessions needed to get a deal.

That’s what worries the Romney campaign, many Republicans, and hawks such as United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a neoconservative group of Iran-watchers. In a statement issued after the Times report, UANI – whose leaders include several former top officials of the George W. Bush administration — warned Obama against lifting sanctions. “In any negotiations with Iran, the ‘easing’ of sanctions must not a bargaining chip for Iranian half-measures, said the UANI statement. “On multiple occasions, the Iranian regime has used the promise of negotiations to buy time in order to further develop its nuclear program and avoid economic pressure. U.S. policymakers must not succumb to this tactic.”

Romney did not immediately comment on the report of possible U.S.-Iran talks, even though in the past he has called the idea of talking directly with Iran “naïve.” Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio who is helping Romney prepare for Monday night’s debate, didn’t directly oppose the idea of talking to Iran, but he did say that the report is “another example of a national security leak from the White House.” That’s a sign that the Romney campaign is uncomfortable with rebutting or directly criticizing the proposed talks, since were he to do so the White House might portray Romney as a proponent of military action rather than diplomacy.

For Iran, the idea of talks with the United States after the election is a no-lose proposition. If Obama wins, the stage could be set for the first real bilateral negotiations between the two countries since the start of the cumbersome talks involving Iran and the P5+1 world powers. If Romney wins, it will be harder for the new Republican administration to gear up for military pressure on Iran – including the buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and closer coordination with Israel – if Iran has signaled its willingness to negotiate. Still, if Ayatollah Khamenei has quietly given his blessing to talks with the United States, he’ll have to deal with hardliners of his own. As many analysts, including Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Institute in Washington have argued, the Supreme Leader has long based his political popularity on refusing the negotiate with the United States. Were he to reverse that position so dramatically, he’ll have to work hard to persuade, cajole and intimidate both allies and opponents who disagree.