Karl Marx brought us the labor theory of value, which posited that the more work you put into producing something, the greater its worth.
That turned out to be rubbish. If you build a bridge to nowhere, then no matter how much labor you have poured into the project, the bridge is useless. You could spend months digging a huge hole in the ground with a teaspoon; it would be a lot of work, but that is no guarantee that by the end you would have produced anything of value. Quite likely you would simply have squandered time, effort and better opportunities in order to dig yourself into a large hole in the ground.
So it goes for U.S. negotiators at the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, who seem to be laboring under the theory that if they just work hard, and harder, and even harder, then in concert with Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, they will produce a deal that will stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Actually, it’s even muddier than that. The aim by now seems to be to leave Iran with a nuclear program, but somehow promise that there will be no Iranian bomb at the end of this rainbow, and assure the world that Iran’s nuclear program will be — in the oft-repeated words of a U.S. senior administration official — “exclusively peaceful.”
It remains a mystery how that might work in practice, or what power, precisely, might enforce this vision of “peace” buttressed by Iranian nuclear facilities. On Tuesday, senior U.S. officials gave a briefing on the Iran nuclear talks — dubbed the P5+1 negotiations — to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Following the briefing, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the committee, released a statement noting that “many Members of the Committee are concerned about the direction of these negotiations,” the biggest concern being that they are leading to a situation in which, ultimately, “it would be very easy for Iran to produce material for nuclear weapons — on a massive scale.”
But for U.S. officials engaged in these talks, the guiding imperative seems to be some sort of labor theory of diplomacy. Never mind the direction in which this diplomatic work crew might be shuffling. The idea seems to be that if the U.S. just works hard enough, with its cohorts, to produce a deal, then the deal will surely be worth something.
By now, the P5+1 talks are becoming an industry unto themselves. The Joint Plan of Action that provides the framework for these interim negotiations was struck last November, setting a July 20th deadline for talks meant to reach a lasting and comprehensive agreement with Iran — unless they don’t, in which case the deadline might be extended to next January. The talks, hosted in Vienna, began in February, and have continued since then with monthly high-level rounds, and multiple “technical” rounds between. In other words, it is now seven months since Iran agreed to talk, and for five months all parties to this endeavor have been talking.
Yet, in a background press briefing following the most recent round, last Friday, a senior U.S. administration official — so punch drunk as to remark “I’ve lost all track of time” — was still saying “we have serious work, very serious work left to do.” That’s not for lack of work having already been done. This same U.S. official elaborated that “an enormous amount of work has gone into this by everyone — enormous.”
Lest anyone be in doubt about the amount of work involved, here is more from that background press briefing by that same U.S. official:
And I’m not being evasive in the sense in that we are entirely focused on working as hard as we can, as intensely as we can, as robustly as we can. And as I said, my colleagues are still working. We will be working on the airplane home. We will be working over the weekend. We will be working all next week. We will be going to Europe for consultations. We will be then coming right back here to Vienna. Our days started very early; they go very late at night. In the U.S. Government we have I don’t know how many people who are working on this who will never see the inside of a meeting room in which some of us sit, but are working on technical documents, are working on solutions, are coming up with ways that we might approach this to assure ourselves that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon.
Lots more work is planned, with the talks due to reconvene July 2 in Vienna, and quite possibly just keep going, right up to the July 20th deadline, or perhaps way beyond.
Why all this work? According to this same U.S. official, in the same briefing linked above, “There are very, very difficult decisions to be taken here by Iran.” (Yet more work, apparently).
Here’s the question. If Tehran is genuinely willing to scrap its quest for nuclear weapons, what’s so very, very difficult?
Under the labor theory of diplomacy, all this work and difficulty might herald a fabulous deal in the making. In the real world, it’s looking ever more like U.S. diplomacy is digging itself into a big hole. The advice in such situations: don’t work harder. Stop digging.