Obama Denies Bilateral Iran Nuclear Talks Underway but doesn’t Reject them Either

During his first Press Conference today following his successful second-term campaign, President Barak Obama emphasized that the United States wants to peacefully resolve the tense dispute over the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program (the US is reportedly considering a more-for-more negotiating strategy) but denied that talks are “imminent”. Importantly, he didn’t reject the notion of direct talks either:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: With respect to Iran, I very much want to see a diplomatic resolution to the problem. I was very clear before the campaign, I was clear during the campaign and I’m now clear after the campaign — we’re not going to let Iran get a nuclear weapon. But I think there is still a window of time for us to resolve this diplomatically. We’ve imposed the toughest sanctions in history. It is having an impact on Iran’s economy.

There should be a way in which they can enjoy peaceful nuclear power while still meeting their international obligations and providing clear assurances to the international community that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon. And so yes, I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved. I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk though, but that would be very much the preferable option.

Q: And the — (inaudible) — conversation picked up?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I won’t talk about the details of negotiations, but I think it’s fair to say that we want to get this resolved and we’re not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols. If Iran is serious about wanting to resolve this, they’ll be in a position to resolve it.

Q: At one point just prior to the election, there was talk that talks might be imminent —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That was — that was not true, and it’s not — it’s not true as — as of today, OK?

Obama essentially read from the US’ official Iran script, apart from his last comment about moving the process along regardless of “diplomatic niceties or protocols” if Iran wants to sincerely engage. This sounds like a hint to the Iranians that he means business and wants them to put something tangible forward — presumably so he can bring it home to the chorus of anti-diplomacy factions in Congress.

How the Iranians will respond to Obama’s hint is the question, especially considering their own domestic political considerations. Writing in Al-Monitor, Banafsheh Keynoush argues that Iran’s hardliners are ready to engage, but won’t submit without serious incentives. Indeed, as Iran scholar Farideh Farhi points out, the key to moving the diplomatic process forward and avoiding a military conflict is flexibility on both sides:

Unless Khamenei and company are given a way out of the mess they have taken Iran into (with some help from the US and company), chances are that we are heading into a war in the same way we headed to war in Iraq. A recent Foreign Affairs article by Ralf Ekeus, the former executive chairman of the UN special Commission on Iraq, and Malfrid-Braut hegghammer, is a good primer on how this could happen.

The reality is that the current sanctions regime does not constitute a stable situation. First, the instability (and instability is different from regime change as we are sadly learning in Syria) it might beget is a constant force for policy re-evaluation on all sides (other members of the P5+1 included). Second, maintaining sanctions require vigilance while egging on the sanctioned regime to become more risk-taking in trying to get around them. This is a formula for war and it will happen if a real effort at compromise is not made. Inflexibility will beget inflexibility.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.