Everyone knows that the Israelis are pressing hard for the Obama administration to set a a relatively short-term deadline for progress in its prospective diplomatic engagement with Iran to bear fruit, after which it would move to tighten sanctions, hopefully in coordination with the EU and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, against Tehran. If, after an additional period of time, Iran proved unresponsive, the Israelis hope that Washington would either take military action on its own or give the green light to Jerusalem to do so. By all accounts, Prime Minister Netanyahu will make some understanding about such a time line his Priority Number One in his talks with Obama in the White House Monday.
Now, on the eve of those talks, the administration appears to be preemptively rejecting this pressure, at least publicly. How else to interpret the following exchange today between reporters and State Department spokesman Ian Kelly about a report in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal headlined, “U.S., Allies Set October Target for Iran Progress: If Benchmarks on Nuclear Negotiations ARen’t Met, Sanctions Would Follow…” and an earlier — and remarkably similar — report that appeared May 10 in Haaretz?
QUESTION: Back to Iran , there’s a press report this morning that the Administration is basically going to give Iran until like, the UN General Assembly in September to respond to the U.S. dialogue – an effort hasn’t started yet.
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does that coincide with your view on it?
MR. KELLY: Well, let me just say that we’re not setting any deadline.
We’re not interested in setting any kind of specific or even notional timeline. We are, of course, monitoring very closely what the Iranians are doing, assessing progress. But it – we don’t have any timeline forward.
What – you know, we’re not going to let this string out forever, of course, but we don’t have any timetable on it.
QUESTION: Well, what —
MR. KELLY: Yes. Sorry, Matt.
QUESTION: They were saying the same thing. They’re saying the same thing, that they are watching the U.S. Administration and waiting for signs of change in policy, so —
MR. KELLY: Well, there is a change in policy. I mean, we have – we’ve decided that we – we’re going to – we want to – we’re going to have a seat at the table, of the P-5+1 table. We’ve decided to engage. We’ve decided that the – our previous approach of isolating Iran didn’t work. And so we want to give engagement a chance.
I’m sorry, Matt. You —
QUESTION: Well, I just – back on the whole idea of the timeline, then.
This was first reported in the Israeli press over the weekend, this whole October idea. You’re saying that that’s incorrect?
MR. KELLY: I’m saying that we do not have any timeline.
QUESTION: Does that mean that these reports are incorrect?
MR. KELLY: I’m saying that we’ve decided that we want to get Iran to come back to the table and engage with us at the – on the P-5+1 process.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Kelly knew exactly what articles these questions were based on, and thus to deny there is even a “notional timeline” seems an unusually clear rejection of the main point of the Journal and Haaretz stories.
The Journal’s story was written by Jay Solomon, a very experienced and reliable reporter. But his sourcing for the headline (which he wouldn’t have written in any case) is remarkably vague. Here are the relevant extracts beginning with the lede sentence.
“The Obama administration its European allies are setting a target of early October to determine whether engagtement with Iran is making progress or should lead to sanctions, said senior officials briefed on the policy.
“They are also developing specific benchmarks to gauge Iranian behavior. Those include whether Tehran is willing to let United Nations monitors make snap inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities that are now off-limits, and whether it will agree to a ‘freeze for freeze’ — halting uranium enrichment in return for holding off on new sanctions — as a precursor to formal negotiations.
“The moves are partly driven by concerns in Israel and among Washington’s Arab allies that Tehran could drag out negotiations indefinitely while advancing its nuclear program, the officials said.
“The target [date] also comes about ten weeks after the Iranian presidential election June 12, giving the U.S. some time to guage the new Tehran administration…”
“The Iranians ‘largely appear unsettled’ by our outreach, said a senior U.S. official working on Iran policy. ‘It’s hard to know whether it’s part of an internal process on their side, whether there’s real opposition to engagement, or are they just playing for time.’
“The benchmarks the U.S. and its allies are establishing also include signs Tehran will be willing to rein in its support for militant groups in the region. ‘The timeline and these benchmarks are flexible, but we have to see some receptiveness from Iran,’ said a U.S. official working on Iran policy.
“The Obama administration has hesitated to lay out firm deadlines or outline proposed punishments should Iran fail to respond to the U.S. overtures.
“Israel and key Arab allies have voiced concerns about the usefulness of diplomacy with Iran. The U.S. point man on Iran policy, Dennis Ross, was greeted with skepticism from Arab allies during a tour this month through Egypt and the Persian Gulf countries, said U.S. officials.”
This account strongly echoed the Haaretz article by Barak Ravid, entitled “U.S. Puts October Deadline on Iran Talks.” Its lede: “The United States has set October as its target for completing the first round of talks with Iran on its nuclear program, according to confidential reports sent to Jerusalem.”
“…Several days ago, Jerusalem received a classified notice reporting on a meeting between a senior European official and the special U.S. envoy on Iran, Dennis Ross. The telegram stated that Ross said this autumn, probably October, was the target date for concluding the first round of talks.
“Ross said that unless the U.S. sees a change in Iran’s position on its nuclear program, Washington’s stance toward Tehran will stiffen at that time, the source explained. [The “source” is not otherwise identified in the article, although one could presume it is someone in the Israeli government who saw the “classified notice.”]
“Several days ago, Ross visited Egypt and several Persian Gulf countries for talks on Iran’s nuclear program. Washington has not informed Israel of its plans. So far, Israel has heard about developments between the U.S. and Iran secondhand, via European sources.
“A political source in Jerusalem said information received so far suggests that the Americans are interested in dialogue with Iran in the near future and plan to hold four to five months of talks. The U.S. will reevaluate the state of talks in the autumn, and will then decide how to proceed.
“‘At the pace the Iranians are moving, it is not at all clear whether by fall the dialogue will have begun,’ the source said. “If the Iranians continue being evasive, it may be necessary to change the dialogue strategy’ ….”
Now, I have no idea who the “senior European officials” was with whom Ross communicated, but it seems like key elements of both stories make Ross a central figure, and one has to wonder whether he was Solomon’s main source. So, assuming for the moment, that Ross is playing some role in getting this story out, is he doing so as part of a strategy that has White House backing, or is he doing it as a way of bolstering Netanyahu’s position on the eve of his visit here? And does the State Department’s explicit denial of a deadline or even a “notional timeline” mark a definitive repudiation of these two reports, in which Ross and the messages he was sending during his recent trip seem to be a common denominator, or is it something less than that? After all, the administration would not want to be seen as issuing what can only be seen as an ultimatum to Tehran even before serious engagement has been initiated (despite Clinton’s recent promise to impose “crippling” sanctions against Iran if it does not respond). In any event, the timing of the State Department spokesman’s statement seems quite remarkable in light of the Netanyahu’s imminent arrival.
I should note that Solomon’s article contains a very intriguing couple of paragraphs buried in the middle of the story, as Gary Sick, a veteran Iran expert at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, pointed out to me this afternoon:
“All Iran’s presidential candidates have said they will not abandon enriching uranium, but Tehran political insiders with knowledge of the talks [presumably internal, but not otherwise identified] say Iran could agree to a short-term ‘freeze for freeze’ formula. Iran would then offer that Western powers can freely monitor Iran’s program to ensure it is not turning military — in return for sharing technology and expertise.”
Sick said he considered this part of the story “very significant” because it echoes the offer reportedly made by Iran to the U.S. after the Iraq invasion in the spring of 2003. The article goes on to quote a former senior Iranian official:
“‘The American will have to accept this offer, they have no choice,’ said Sadegh Kharazi, a former deputy foreign minister who remains involved in Iran’s foreign policy. ‘Iran will not back down. From now on, let’s all talk about how to form partnerships so it benefits both parties.'”
While this sounds like bravado, the context appears to confirm the previous sentence about what “Tehran political insiders” believe will be offered: freeze for freeze followed by stepped up international inspection in exchange for technology and expertise. (It bears noting that Farnaz Fassihi, a very well-connected and astute reporter, contributed to Solomon’s article and no doubt interviewed Kharazi and the “insiders.”) While such a deal would probably be unacceptable to the Israelis — and the neo-conservative authors of the Bipartisan Policy Center paper that Ross signed last September — it may well be acceptable to Obama and the Euros.