By Paul Mutter
The New York Times reported this weekend that the Obama Administration has agreed in principle to hold direct bilateral negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding its nuclear program.
Both sides have reportedly agreed that the talks will not take place until after the presidential election, a senior administration official was quoted as saying. The Iranian representatives have told their US counterparts, who are not identified in the article, that they want to know who wins the election before committing to anything.
News of the alleged agreement — reported to be the result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term in 2009 — comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy:
…. Within the administration, there is debate over just how much uranium the United States would allow Iran to enrich inside the country. Among those involved in the deliberations, an official said, are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two of her deputies — William J. Burns and Wendy Sherman — and key White House officials, including the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and two of his lieutenants, Denis R. McDonough and Gary Samore.
The Times reported that Israeli officials were “informed” of the measure, but this too has been met with public denials:
Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Mr. Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”
Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns and Amb. Dennis Ross (from the Obama White House, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), both of whom worked as negotiators over Iran’s nuclear program, offered praise for the move. Both men indicated that a deal could be done that would permit Iran to continue enriching uranium at levels under five percent in exchange for the strictest possible inspection regime and resolving all outstanding questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about alleged research, testing and other work related to possible military uses of nuclear energy. The existing sanctions regime would be eased in phases as the nuclear deal was implemented.
The White House denies the most significant parts of the Times‘s reporting (Iran’s government has issued a similar denial as well):
It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P-5 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally. The President has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that. It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure.
That statement was quickly corrected by the White House when it added a “+1” to the P-5, thus ensuring that Germany still felt part of the group.
Oddly, a self-described Iranian defector, who has made somewhat bizarre charges against the Islamic Republic in the past, published a news story alleging in the far-right website WorldNet Daily that President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei were on the verge of a cutting deal on the Iran’s nuclear program. The story also asserted that Iran is still testing nuclear weapons components and is very close to developing a nuclear warhead. Neither the US nor the Israeli intelligence communities has made a similar claim. Also dubious was his claim that Washington would quickly ease sanctions, as the president lacks the legal authority to lift sanctions enacted by Congress.
UPDATE (by Jim): Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association and a very savvy observer of the nuclear negotiations says this could be very good news:
As JFK said: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Diplomacy remains the best option to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Direct talks could increase our ability to finally close a deal that: limits Iran’s enrichment to normal reactor-grade levels, caps its uranium stockpiles, and gives international inspectors greater access to ensure that Iran has halted all weapons-related work, all in exchange for a phased rollback of international sanctions.
Trita Parsi: president of the National Iranian American Council and author of two books on U.S.-Iran-Israeli politics:
This, if followed through, is a very big deal. The Iranians have rejected a bilateral since October 2009 – even with other p5 States that sanctioned them – so this would be an important shift. It’s also interesting how much forthcoming the administration is about potentially accepting enrichment in Iran at the end state – a key Iranian Red line.
If it holds, could be a game changer…
UPDATE II (by Jim): There is considerable discussion — and disagreement — going on among the cogniscenti as to whether this is a leak designed to prepare the ground for direct negotiations and possibly help Obama defend his policy on the eve of the debate or whether it is the opposite. I’m leaning to the more optimistic side, but that’s in my nature.