Diplomacy between Iran and the United States
has entered the opening gambit stage, and Iran appears to be winning at this
The game began on July 19, when Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met
with European negotiators with an American diplomat, Undersecretary of State
William J. Burns, present for the first time at such a meeting since the Iranian
The presence of Burns riled many anti-Iranian forces, resulting in a flurry
of pronouncements and articles about American "capitulation" to Iran. The recriminations
continued. On Aug. 5, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, a notorious anti-Iran
detractor, wrote a fulminating article in the Wall Street Journal
Diplomats Dither, Iran Builds Nukes."
The Bush administration clearly found itself in a difficult situation, needing
to placate hawks like Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney while seeming to
allow diplomacy to have a chance, so they made the talks not about substance,
but about power – which side could compel the other to toe the line.
So the Bush administration started with a big lie. At the time of the July
meeting the press and the State Department announced that Iran had a two-week
deadline to respond to the European proposals (the exact details of which remain
secret, but which are presumed to include an extensive basket of technology,
economic, and trade incentives).
There was no such deadline. It appears to have been a fiction. However, this
falsehood gave Washington and the press the opportunity on Aug. 2 to announce
that Iran had "rejected" the deadline. The New
York Times went so far as to call it an "informal deadline,"
a head-scratching concept.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was reported by Agence
France Press to have said, "The language of deadline-setting is not understandable
to us. We gave them our response within a month as we said we would; now they
have to reply to us."
Even the State Department itself had to back down from the fictional deadline.
State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack threatened further sanctions if Iran did not respond on Wednesday,
July 30. But he had changed his tune on Saturday, Aug. 2, the putative deadline.
"I didn't count the days. It's coming up soon," he said. And when asked when
Washington would pull incentives off the table designed to persuade Iran to
abandon its uranium enrichment program, McCormack said "there is no indication
So little happened at the July 19 meeting, it could hardly be called a diplomatic
encounter. In fact, Iran has been pursuing a productive diplomatic course.
Rather than responding to deadlines and ultimatums, Iran has steadily put forward
proposals for resolving its differences with the European and American governments
over its nuclear energy program. It is clear that Iran will not give up its
"inalienable right" to peaceful development of nuclear energy, as enshrined
in Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it (but not
India, Pakistan, or Israel) is a signatory. It seeks other means, short of
suspending uranium enrichment, to assure the world that it has no active nuclear
Iran's proposal for negotiations presented to the European Nations is titled
"The Modality For Comprehensive
Negotiations" and sets out three stages of proceedings:
Preliminary Talks. Overall determination of the
Start of Talks. Actions against Iran would be suspended
and common ground matters would be discussed.
Negotiations. Actual negotiating stage which the
Iranians envision should last two months, but could be extended by mutual consent.
Iran does not agree in this document to suspend uranium enrichment. The document
states in the negotiation stage that determinations regarding Iran's compliance
with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty would be "concluded in the UNSC [United
Nations Security Council] and fully and completely returned to the Agency [The
International Atomic Energy Agency]."
This is a reasonable blueprint for forward negotiations, and it represents
a real diplomatic effort on Iran's part. By contrast, the United States seems
to have acted with a combination of bluff and muscle, and it has gotten nowhere
for its efforts.
This has not stopped the United States and its European allies for calling
on Aug. 4 for more sanctions based on Iran's violation of the "informal
deadline." This is an astonishing exercise in diplomatic audacity – calling
for punishment where there could be no violation, there being no mutual agreement
of the conditions under which actions would be declared a violation. Unfortunately,
the political climate against Iran being what it is, such an unwarranted, bellicose
move will likely go unquestioned.
Except by Iran.
Iran had its own gambits in mind to retain control of the process. After the
accusations and the threats by the European and U.S. consortium, they countered
with a grim reminder that they could close the Strait of Hormuz, through which
two-thirds of OPEC crude oil passes. They tested some new conventional missiles.
Then they announced
that they would indeed answer the European proposals – but in their own time
and on their own timetable, according to their own agenda. They were clearly
working through their own negotiation plan step by step, catching the United
States off guard, and throwing everyone in Washington off their game, leaving
them to continue their slow burn.
The question is whether, out of frustration or pique, the impatient Washington
detractors will upset the table.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in