May 18, 2014

Iranian nuclear talks fail - the kabuki dance continues

So why are we talking to these people?

It came as a surprise only to those few in the Obama Administration who are naive enough to believe that Iran is serious about curtailing its nuclear enrichment activities and halting its quest to develop nuclear weapons - the May 16 round of talks in Vienna were at best a failure. Nothing was accomplished, except that the Iranians agreed to, yes, meet again to talk about the talks.

While this kabuki dance continues, the centrifuges in Iran continue to spin unabated. Yet, President Barack Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry remain confident that they can convince the Iranians to give up their ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

The talks were obviously such a disaster that the negotiators, the EU's Catherine Ashton and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, were joined by Secretary Kerry in an effort to salvage something, anything, positive. It does not appear that was successful - in typical Iranian fashion, Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi stated that although "there was no tangible progress in this round of the talks" and the differences between the two sides were too great to begin drafting a final agreement - due by July 20 - the talks would continue next month.

This is what the Iranians do - present an unrealistic, non-negotiable position that is rejected by the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), and then agree to continue the talks. In case Mr. Kerry does not recognize this tactic, it is called buying time. We wait for the next round of talk, the Iranians continue to enrich uranium. Am I missing something here?

The talks will continue - a day here, a day there. As the July 20 deadline approaches, the two sides will exercise the six-month extension provision that is part of last year's "temporary agreement" to continue to try and reach a final agreement. In that temporary agreement, the West agreed to lift some sanctions on Iran and release some of its assets that had been frozen in the United States. In return for what? Yes, an agreement from the Iranians to talk and to limit its enrichment of uranium to the five percent level.

Unwittingly, Secretary Kerry tacitly granted the Iranians something that up until that time they did not have under their international treaty obligations and at least six UN Security Council resolutions - the right to enrich uranium at all.

The remarks of current and former Obama Administration officials have been interesting.

- Speaking to the American Jewish Committee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "no deal is better than a bad deal." Considering the audience, was she supposed to say (truthfully), "We are doing nothing and will worry about an Iranian nuclear weapon after the fact. After all, they are not a threat to us - yet." She also said she was "personally skeptical" that Iran would agree to a comprehensive deal to remove its nuclear weapon capabilities but that the Obama administration faced a promising opportunity that required it to "give diplomacy space to work." Really? Just what is this "promising opportunity?"

- Ambassador Rice, speaking at an Israeli Embassy event reiterated the American commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Again, considering the audience, what else could she say?

- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, speaking in Israel, stated that United States "will do what we must" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I don't think the Iranians are frightened by Hagel's thinly-veiled threat of use of military force - they have assessed the Obama Administration as weak and indecisive.

I also don't think the Israelis believe or trust the Obama Administration. The American officials (I originally used the word "leaders," but thought better of it) say all the right words, but they seem desperate to reach some sort of agreement with the Iranians. That would give them at least one foreign policy success after a parade of stunning failures, the last of which was the embarrassing collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks while Secretary Kerry was directly involved.

I hope the Administration remembers Hillary Clinton's words, "no deal is better than a bad deal." So far, this is a bad deal.