The October Surprise
The New York Times reports (and the White House denies) that "The United States and Iran have agreed for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran."
Two of the three assertions in that lead paragraph are demonstrably false. One-on-one negotiations have been going on for years (most recently, according to my friend "Reza Kahlili," in Doha, where, he was told, Valerie Jarrett and other American officials recently traveled for the latest talks). The only news here is that the talks would no longer be secret. And the notion that only diplomacy can avert "a military strike on Iran" is fanciful. There are at least two other ways: sanctions may compel the regime to stop its nuclear weapons program, or the Iranian people may find a way to overthrow the regime, thereby (perhaps, at least) rendering military action unnecessary.
I rather suspect that you don't have to do anything to avoid an American military strike on Iran. I can't imagine an Obama administration authorizing a military attack. An administration that can barely bring itself to fly air cover in Libya, and can't bring itself to take any serious action in Syria, strikes me as very unlikely to unleash our armed forces against the mullahs.
As for the claim that Iran has agreed to talks, even that seems problematic, as the Times admits further down in its story: "American officials said they were uncertain whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort." If there is no approval from the supreme leader, there is no agreement at all.
The Times' journalists -- Helene Cooper and Mark Lander -- then treat us to an attempt to calculate the political significance of their story, but that is as foggy as the report itself. Maybe it would help Obama claim some sort of breakthrough. On the other hand, maybe it would leave him open to the charge that Iran is using him to stall for time. Who knows? They quote America's favorite negotiator, Dennis Ross, who is of course all for the talks, and even has a negotiating strategy all ready. And they quote Nicholas Burns, who is also supportive.
This last is a bit curious, since Burns, who was Condoleezza Rice's top negotiator with the Iranians, actually believed he had negotiated a "grand bargain" with the Iranians in 2006. The Iranians would suspend nuclear enrichment and we would lift sanctions. Except that the Iranians failed to show up for the signing ceremony at the United Nations, and Rice and Burns sat in New York waiting for the Iranian airplane to take off from Tehran. Apparently Mr.Burns didn't learn the obvious lesson.
At least one element of the Times story is true: the agreement, if there actually is one, is undoubtedly "a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term." Indeed, there were talks between Iranian officials and a representative of the Obama campaign, even before the inauguration. Secret talks between the two countries have been going on for decades, and I do not know of any American president from Jimmy Carter to the present who did not secretly pursue a deal with Tehran. (I participated in such talks in the mid-1980s during the Reagan administration.)
So what is happening? The most likely explanation is that Obama is still desperately seeking his grand bargain, the one that would validate his (and the Nobel Committee's) claim to be a talented peace maker. That deal is not available, because the Iranians don't want it. But he wants something to show for his efforts, so he settled for a big nothingburger: an agreement to talk some more.
Even if the story turns out to be true, I don't think it will help him. "We're going to talk to the Iranians!" isn't a very sexy headline.
The one (mildly) interesting feature is why the story was leaked. Did the leaker(s) think it would help the campaign? Or was the leaker trying to stop yet another embarrassing wasted effort?
Give it a few days, maybe we'll actually learn something interesting. Maybe it'll even come up in Monday's debate...
UPDATE: Thanks to Instapundit and to Matt Drudge for the generous links. Welcome, all.
UPDATE 2: The Times changes the story, not mentioning earlier versionn.