In the weekend leading into the final debate in the American presidential election, and two weeks before the election, The New York Times reported progress between the US and Iran toward a diplomatic settlement to the long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Is this the October Surprise of 2012 Election? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
A story in Saturday’s The New York Times reported that the United States and Iran had agreed “in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.” Citing officials in the Obama administration, the paper reported that the talks could serve as “a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”
The paper went on to say the new and dramatic development was the result of some very quiet, behind-the-scenes discussions between US and Iranian officials that have been going on almost from the beginning of Barack Obama’s time in office. They also come just as event managers are putting the final touches to preparations for the final debate in the American presidential cycle, an encounter that will be exclusively about national security and foreign policy. As a result of this late-breaking story, The Daily Maverick is no longer taking bets on the prime topic that will come up in this debate.
Despite the opportunities for lowering tension in the Middle East that could flow from such negotiations, this potentially explosive event also poses some important risks. On the plus side for the Obama candidacy, such a still-evolving development could easily become a key part of the case Obama might make in the closing moments of the presidential campaign; effectively parrying Mitt Romney’s continuing charge the Obama administration’s Iran policy is weak, muddled and misguided. But it might still backfire on Obama if enough American voters conclude that this was just another crafty Iranian effort to forestall pressure on it from the worried nations of the West.
For the Iran, going forward with talks has risks as well. First of all, even if the agreement is for real, it is not clear, given his strenuous criticism of Obama’s efforts vis-à-vis Iran and his virtually unconditional support for Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s uncompromising stance towards Iran, that if Romney were elected he would carry out terms reached by the Obama team. Further, the resulting embarrassment to Iran from a subsequent brush-off by a President-elect Romney might well undermine the position of current Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is facing various, more militant factions in his country.
Almost as soon as this story broke in print and electronically, the White House tried to get back out in front of it, denying there is any agreement for one-on-one negotiations between the countries. Rather, a spokesman said that while the US was prepared to talk one-on-one with Iranian representatives in order to achieve a diplomatic settlement over the toxic stalemate that comes from Tehran's reported pursuit of nuclear weapons, there is actually no agreement in place – now – to meet.
Advancing the story, the Associated Press reported that American National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “the president has already stated he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and will do whatever's necessary to block that from happening” and that Iran must swing into line with its obligations, or take increased pressure on board. Vietor said “The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure,” adding that efforts to get Iran back to the table with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, known as the P5+1, continue. Then, a little later on Sunday, right on schedule, Iranian government sources also dismissed talk of an agreement. Just maybe these denials are starting to sound like the carefully constructed, ritualized lowering of one toe (well, two toes, actually) into the water to test the temperature for the next step.
The Politico Playbook blog was already laying out the next moves, writing, “With the final presidential debate – on foreign policy! – coming up Monday night, each campaign quickly gamed out what the other would say: Obama could claim a concrete step to avert war. Romney could say the president is negotiating with terrorists, sitting down with irrational actors.”
After White House denials of a deal with the Iranians, The Times updated its story to say the sides had agreed “in principle” to one-on-one talks. Looking at how things were playing out, the Politico blog added, “the risk is that at the debate, the President could say there is no such agreement – in principle or otherwise. He could say he is WILLING to have such talks, but has not agreed to them. If the President says he can’t talk about it, The Times will be vindicated. A senior administration official told Playbook: ‘Iran is in a place where they're feeling more pressure than ever before because of sanctions. Their currency has all but collapsed in recent months. There may be a point where they come to the table for a conversation. WE WOULD BE OPEN TO THAT. And frankly the only step after that is a military conflict, because the President has been clear that he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon...’”
Republican Senator Rob Portman, Romney’s sparring partner for his prep for all of the presidential debates, tried hard to pour cold water on possible enthusiasm for the (presumed) agreement, telling Meet the Press the leading American political television talk show, “It sounds to me like it's another national security leak from the White House. They've done a lot of that. ... The last thing we would want to do is abandon our allies in this, and to make it a one-on-one negotiation. In fact, some of those allies... have actually been more forward leaning than we’ve been, to be sure these sanctions were tough and put in place.” Right, got it. If the US stands back and lets someone else take the lead, it’s the sin of leading from behind; but if the US engages Iran in direct talks, that becomes abandoning America’s allies.
The US and Iran, of course, have had decades of some really bad history together which almost always can be counted upon to provide roadblocks for any progress or improvement in relations between the two nations. The Iranians see an America that has meddled in Iranian affairs since World War II; that unseated the economic revolutionary but elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh in favour of the Shah Reza Pahlevi in 1953; that supported the Shah and his secret police force, the Savak, against the will of many of the country’s people; that then backed Saddam Hussein in his war against revolutionary Iran; and now, most recently, opposes the presumed effort to develop nuclear weapons through increasingly stringent economic sanctions. And, of course, supports Israel. In addition, the Iranian government also sees an American hand behind the now-tamped down pro-democracy movement in Iran as well as the Stuxnet computer systems virus that has bedevilled Iran’s nuclear technology efforts.
The US, obviously, sees this whole dynamic rather differently, pointing to the illegal seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in violation of international law and the subsequent holding of the American staff there hostage for over a year by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This, is in addition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, of course.
More than anything else, the nuclear question has come to be the crucial issue of contention between the two nations. Iran insists its nuclear designs are purely for peaceful energy and research purposes. The dispute over its nuclear program has also become inextricably tangled with Israel’s concerns about its own security – and that, in turn, is a major and sometimes contentious part of the American-Israeli relationship for some. Further the questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and Iranian-Israeli animosity are now an important part of the American presidential campaign, and thus a key focus of the candidates’ debate on Monday night.
In part, this issue speaks to the Republican narrative about Barack Obama’s presumed weaknesses in international security issues – or a Republican sense of desperation about the election that they can’t quite get a handle on, despite their efforts. Up until a few weeks ago, the party’s best line of attack had been on the Obama administration’s failure on domestic economic policy. Until the latest unemployment figures dropped below the trip wire of 8% and as other economic indices indicated slow but real movement from future-leading indicators.
Partly in response to this changed circumstance, the Republicans have begun to emphasize foreign policy much more in their critique of the president. Republicans seem to have sensed a degree of weakness on the part of the Obama administration in the wake of the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. This attack and the confusion about what it meant for US Middle East policies has somewhat disrupted what many assumed would be the predominant 2012 narrative that the Democrats had decisively reversed a two-generation perception of their party as weak on national defence.
Romney forces have been trying for traction on foreign policy in this campaign for months, attacking the Obama administration for maltreating one of the country’s major strategic allies in the Middle East and for having “thrown Israel under a bus” by failing to back the Netanyahu government’s insistence that Iranian nuclear progress was a key determinant of Israel’s declining security. The right response, Republicans argued, was what amounts to the unconditional backing of Israel as its own best arbiter of national security – even if it might mean a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear installations.
Throughout the spring and summer months in America, and as the presidential race grew more visible, there were growing hints of an increasingly imminent Israeli (or even a joint US-Israeli) attack on Iranian nuclear facilities – or at the very least the in-depth operational planning for it. Or, alternatively, there was the need for the Israelis to depend on American logistical support for in-flight refuelling, theatre intelligence and real-time aerial surveillance that might not be forthcoming easily and that these requisites would instead tamp down the possibilities of any attack until the process was much further along in Iran.
Netanyahu then made things more complex, lobbying openly for that blank cheque during his visit to the US when he spoke before the US Congress, engaging in a virtually unprecedented participation in US domestic politics as he essentially campaigned for Mitt Romney. The Romney camp, of course, returned this love and affection, reminding voters that Romney and Bibi were old pals back as far as Romney’s Bain Capital days.
Fast forward to the present, as the Obama administration is working hard to show that there is virtually no daylight between the two nations. The US and Israel have a major joint defence exercise in the works, and various US intelligence and defence sources have been arguing the Iranians are not nearly as close as thought to generating weapons-grade uranium, let alone creating the actual weapons that can be married to launch platforms that can deliver a warhead somewhere.
Taken as a whole, however, the Iran-Israel issue has now entered the American political arena rather more thoroughly than expected. Thus, the timing of the Times story would therefore seem to be a rather an extraordinary coincidence. As a result, look for Romney to argue in Monday night’s debate that a US-Iranian meeting would be an affront to Israel and to the members of the P5+1 group. Moreover, any such negotiation would only be a last-ditch effort to show some backbone in foreign affairs by an Obama administration that has been a weak, “leading from behind” apologist.
By contrast, watch Obama argue that while such US-Iranian talks are not yet a reality, if they were to happen they would be a demonstration of the very real success of the patient Obama foreign policy approach. This is the argument that acknowledges while the US can’t do everything, everywhere; that the world is complex and there is no place for inexperienced bluster and fluster.
That approach fits well into the larger Obama administration pattern of slowly lowering world tensions in especially volatile regions. This is especially true as the Arab Spring and its aftermath continue to be both unsettling and unpredictable – and not totally and easily amenable to America’s will. Experienced hands will be needed, not brash, rash ones. Given what has happened, watch for Iran to be topic one, even more important than China, than Russia, than Afghanistan or the international economic order – maybe even more important than the increasingly tragic events in Syria. DM
- “U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks,” on The New York Times
- “White House denies agreement on U.S., Iran nuclear talks,” on Politico.com
- “Road Show,” on The New Yorker
Photo: Collage of Reuters photographs - Mitt Romney, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad & Barack Obama