Iran-US Talks: Path to Peace or Confidence Game?

Iran says it’s ready for talks—at last. But as the U.S. gears up for what could be a last chance to avoid a war, can anyone believe Tehran?

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REUTERS/Michael Dalder

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden gives a speech at the 49th Conference on Security Policy in Munich February 2, 2013.

Last March President Barack Obama told the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he would do whatever it takes to stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon. But if avoiding a new war in the Middle East means believing Iran has forsaken its pursuit of a nuke, Obama faces a problem. Over the last ten years, Iran has flouted U.N. and IAEA orders to restrain its nuclear program, ignored an unconditional offer of one-on-one talks from Obama and refused to budge in the face of crippling sanctions and covert action.

If all that failed to reverse Iran’s course, how can Tehran convince the world to have confidence in it now?

Iran’s about to get what may be its last chance to try. At a conference in Munich Sunday, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Salehi, said his country would join negotiations with international powers Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan. The talks were supposed to start in December, but Obama administration officials and European negotiators say Iran refused to agree where and when, exactly, to meet. Jaded western officials say they’ll only believe talks will actually happen when the Iranians show up.

(MORE: Iran’s Agenda: Why Tehran Plays Hard to Get on Nuclear Diplomacy)

Even if they do, the White House has low expectations. Off the table are any thoughts about what Iran could do to get its program back into compliance with international demands and ultimately keep some non-military nuclear capability–previous talks with the international powers focused only on short term measures to defuse tensions. “We are not in negotiations with them about end-state,” says a senior administration official. “All the discussions we have had with them have to do with steps that they need to take to build confidence.”

Even that low bar may be too high for the Iranian regime. That’s partly because even as it stalls for time and promises to talk, Iran seems to be headed in the other direction. It has announced a plan to install higher efficiency centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, where it has been steadily producing low-enriched uranium for years. The new centrifuges could cut substantially the time it would take them to produce enough fuel for a bomb. At the same time, Iran is gearing up for elections in June, an unlikely time for politicians to make concessions to America.

But if talks with Iran seem a long shot to produce peace, the Obama administration appears to be less worried about war than it did just a few months ago. Current and former senior administration officials privately say the threshold for military action is high. Foreign diplomats in Washington say that after three years of tough talk the administration is showing a softer face ahead of the talks. They read the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State and the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, both of whom were critical of the war in Iraq, as signs the administration is not in a hurry to go to war again in the region. On Feb. 2 at the same Munich conference Salehi spoke at, vice president Joe Biden said the U.S. would consider one-on-one talks with Iran, last offered in 2009 but then abandoned in the face of Iranian intransigence.

(MORE: The Year We Reckon With Iran)

Part of the administration’s seeming calm may come from the fact that while it hasn’t stopped the Iranian program over the last four years,  the U.S. and its allies have put some time on the clock. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. last September that the west must act by late spring or early summer to stop an Iranian weapon. But recent reports say Israeli intelligence believes covert action has slowed the Iranian program. The earliest Iran might get a bomb, according to these reports, is 2015. Former administration officials familiar with military planning describe a similarly extended time line for intervention.

At the same time, Iran is doing little things that could be read as opening the way to a deal. It reportedly slowed its production of enriched uranium to keep its stockpile under the amount needed to produce a single nuclear weapon, converting some into nuclear fuel rods for its research reactor, a move that is difficult to reverse. Also, by choosing to install its new centrifuges in Natanz, rather than the deeply buried facility at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, it is choosing to make them more vulnerable to a military attack.

Ultimately, though, the U.S. confidence may come from the fact that President Obama’s threat to use force is serious, and is backed up by real planning at the Pentagon. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, seems to have confidence in Obama’s commitment. “President Obama has said time and again that he is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he recently told Time. “We are closely communicating with the Obama Administration in an effort to identify the best means for achieving that goal.”

Or as Frederick the Great said: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”

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15 comments
b_keyser
b_keyser

It seems the State Department has mastered the "kick the can" strategy as well as Treasury.

stuart_zechman
stuart_zechman

Massimo Calabresi's Iran-US Reportage:  Cheap War-Sensationalism or Access-Seeking Fluff?

drudown
drudown

What's with the headline? Tell me, why is this 'the last chance to avoid a war'? Says who...Halliburton?

A cursory review of the run up to the Iraq invasion tends to prove that the "threat" these Middle Eastern states actually pose the People is de minimis, at best. We simply have nothing to gain by invading Iran and will simply further destabilize the region. Not in our best interests. 

Say, I have an idea. How about Israel goes to war with Iran if it wants to?

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

It is interesting that all the turmoil in the world today is happening in countries that were former countries within the Roman Empire........Soon 10 countries will form a 10 nation confederacy out of which the anti-christ will arise..........their common denomenator will be their hatred of Israel.........and will they hold the world at ransom for their oil??

........Revelation 17:12-14..........

12 “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. 13 These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast..........

......Revelation 13:2-3.......

2 Now the beast which I saw was like a leopard, his feet were like the feet of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority. 3 And I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound was healed. And all the world marveled and followed the beast.

Revelation 13:4.......

4 So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?”

j.villain1
j.villain1

Netanyahu has been claiming for almost 20 years that Iran would have a bomb any minute now and for 20 years he has been wrong. No one agrees that Iran is actually trying to make a bomb and the Israeli evidence has been mostly disproven. But American politicians have to go along because ... well every one saw the Hagel nomination.

http://armscontrollaw.com/2013/01/22/yousaf-butt-pretty-in-pink-the-parchin-preoccupation-paradox/

What Israel is demanding is a complete stop of the entire Iranian nuclear program including reactors. Iran as a signatory of the NPT is allowed by that agreement which the US also signed to have a nuclear program. The demands being placed on Iran by Israel and the US are unique to Iran and no one else in the world including North Korea is being ordered to give up as much as Iran. For the record both China and Russia are getting sick and tired of the US attitude and Russia has told the US and Israel they do NOT have a green light to bomb Iran.

 

CerebralSmartie
CerebralSmartie

It was a little disconcerting to read the words: "for what could be a last chance to avoid a war,". Oh yeah, let's escalate this, Fox news style.


DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Over the last ten years, Iran has flouted U.N. and IAEA orders to restrain its nuclear program, ignored an unconditional offer of one-on-one talks from Obama and refused to budge in the face of crippling sanctions and covert action.

Well, there was someone in office before Obama that kind of when out of his way to spit in their face at every opportunity.

mrxexon
mrxexon

Direct talks are long overdue. We should have never ended diplomatic relations with Iran. And we should also remember that it was our meddling in their internal affairs that lead to the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of the Islamists. All for the sake of oil.


But yes, we need to talk with Iran. And we need to make Israel shut up and sit in the corner while we do.


x

sacredh
sacredh

Or as Frederick the Great said: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”

Or as Onan said "Sex without a partner is still sex."

sacredh
sacredh

"But recent reports say Israeli intelligence believes covert action has slowed the Iranian program. The earliest Iran might get a bomb, according to these reports, is 2015"

.

So why did BiBi make his theatrical claims this past fall in New York? Was it because he was trying to influence the US elections and give Romney a boost?



DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@PlumbLine 

Don't worry PlumbLine, your book's calls for doom and gloom have been written, edited, and re-written by men over the centuries.  You have nothing to worry about.

jmac
jmac

@j.villain1Peace in the Middle East  might only come when others have the weapons that Israel itself possesses.   We lost the argument on Iran when we invaded the country that didn't have and wasn't close to having a nuclear weapon (or even a fighting force worth bragging about).    If I'm Iran, the lesson learned was you get the weapon or others won't hesitate to invade for whatever petty, lying reason they can come up with.  Shame on us.  

MrObvious
MrObvious

@DonQuixotic 

Like declaring them part of an Axis of Evil when the people attacking us came from Saudi Arabia (mostly)? Yeah - way to go to cast the net wide in order to drag as many other nations into the mess. Considering that the former white house couldn't be bothered with figuring out what religious factions there are in the Middle East.

drudown
drudown

@sacredh 

I'm sure these are the same "credible sources" that Bush relied on to invade Iraq, e.g., the "mobile chemical weapons labs" = abandoned school buses.