Never mind whether the U.S. can keep track of Iran’s nuclear program — that’s next week’s problem. The question at the Iran nuclear talks, in full frenzy right now amid the chocolate shops of Lausanne, Switzerland, is how Secretary of State John Kerry can even keep track of his own meetings.
With a looming March 31 deadline for reaching an amorphous arrangement that U.S. senior officials describe as “a political framework that addresses all of the major elements of a comprehensive deal,” the talks have become a whirligig of high-level bilaterals, trilaterals, etc. (or, as the talk-weary retinue of reporters have come to know them, bilats, trilats, etc.) among Iran and the P5+1 negotiating partners (U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany), hosted by European Union high representative Federica Mogherini.
Each meeting involving the U.S. is duly announced to the press by the State Department in detail that provides no information other than the names and timing: an hour and five minutes with a bevy of Iranians, 44 minutes with the EU high representative, 30 minutes with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, 40 minutes with the French, Germans and EU high representative, 59 minutes with the Chinese foreign minister… with additional permutations, this has been going on since Kerry arrived Thursday in Switzerland for the current round.
The only major player missing from the scene has been Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, reportedly due to arrive at the talks today [Sunday afternoon update: Lavrov has now arrived]. Perhaps he decided, reasonably enough, that the U.S. is digging itself into a hole so large that there is no need for Russia at this stage to pitch in. It’s been quite enough for the Kremlin to watch from afar. In any event, Kerry has already found time amid the bilats and trilats, etc., to phone Lavrov — one of the stipulations of the P5+1 negotiations being that no deal gets done unless it is acceptable not only to the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, but also to China (a major hub of illicit procurement for Iran’s nuclear program) and Russia (which despite what were once vociferous U.S. objections built Iran its nuclear reactor at Bushehr, and during the current Iran talks has itself come under targeted U.S. sanctions for chewing off pieces of Ukraine).
What is this all for? The real deadline for the Iran nuclear talks is not March 31, but June 30. Is that even really a deadline? The initial framework for these talks was announced in Nov., 2013, with a time frame of six months for nuclear talks to reach a comprehensive and permanent deal. The talks did not begin until Feb., 2014, almost three months later. Then the deadline was extended, twice. The aim at the moment is for a political framework to be agreed by the end of this month (this coming Tuesday), and then the “technical” details are to be hammered out by the end of June.
Except, senior U.S. officials have been repeating in background briefings since at least last February that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” — or variations on that theme. Presumably this means that Iran could agree to a political framework now, and then spend the next three months creating havoc with those irritating “technical” details. That approach worked out well for North Korea — which agreed at the Six-Party Talks in 2007 to a nuclear climbdown deal, and enjoyed a welter of rewards and U.S. concessions even as it began to come clear that Pyongyang disagreed with the U.S. over such technicalities as disclosing its full nuclear program and permitting actual verification. That deal collapsed at the end of 2008, followed in 2009 and 2013 by North Korea’s second and third nuclear tests.
Then there’s the problem of what the U.S. is by now aiming for. The catch-phrase of Obama administration officials, repeated endlessly, with slight variations, since the start of these nuclear talks, has been that the U.S. and its partners are seeking a deal that will prove to “the international community” that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful.” You can find seven repetitions of that basic line in this March 16, 2015 State Department background briefing alone (just search on the keyword “peaceful”).
The absurdity here is, of course, that Iran’s nuclear program is patently not exclusively peaceful. In these nuclear talks, Iran has reportedly been demanding terms, such as the “right” to uranium enrichment, which are not remotely necessary for a peaceful nuclear program. The Obama administration is now touting it as a desirable goal to try to keep Iran just a year away from a breakout to nuclear weapons. In the context of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s terror-sponsoring messianic tyranny, already expanding its reach across the Middle East, that is not a peaceful setup. Nor does it sound particularly reliable, given Iran’s long record of nuclear deceit, smuggling and lying about its nuclear program, compounded by errors and lags in western detection of the same.
But to judge by the frantic behavior of Kerry and U.S. envoy Wendy Sherman (U.S. point person at the talks since they began), President Obama apparently wants a nuclear deal with Iran, whatever that means, and whatever it takes. So let’s focus for a moment on the wiggle-room afforded by the term “international community” — as in, the international community that is supposed to end up satisfied that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful.”
What is that “international community”? Who belongs to this apparently select crowd? Evidently it consists of the diplomats at the talks, and the politicians behind them. It includes Obama, Kerry, Putin, Lavrov, China’s President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. It includes the British, German and French (who reportedly have not been entirely satisfied so far that Iran’s intentions are exclusively peaceful, but maybe with enough bilats and trilats Kerry will wear them down, if only by way of sheer exhaustion).
Anyone else who might have doubts about any deal (or quasi deal) emerging from the current talks is apparently not part of the “international community.” If they are not satisfied, their concerns are less important than Iran’s demands. This crowd of non-members of the international community evidently includes a great many members of the U.S. Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia, me, maybe you, and anyone else prone to wondering whether Tehran just might have plans to do something beyond powering the electric grid — with all that nuclear infrastructure which, along with its ballistic missile program, the Iranian regime is refusing to give up.
Are these talks by now really about stopping Iran from getting the bomb? Or are they preparing the way for U.S. administration officials and their select “international community” cohorts to start telling us, not so far down the road, that it’s really all right for Iran to get nuclear weapons, as long as the bombs are for purposes that Iran assures us are — what’s that phrase again? — “exclusively peaceful”?
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