If you believe Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili made substantive progress, then they have got a bridge to sell you.(Tolga Adanali/AFP/Getty Images)
Navigate to News section

After Iran Nuclear Talks, No News Is Good News

But already tension emerges between negotiators and Israel

Marc Tracy
April 16, 2012
If you believe Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili made substantive progress, then they have got a bridge to sell you.(Tolga Adanali/AFP/Getty Images)

The New York Times’ Steven Erlanger is a good journalist, so when he writes a report that at times reads like Lewis Carroll, it’s safe to chalk this up not to poor (or intentionally funny) writing but rather to the Wonderland-like quality of what is being described. The Iranian nuclear talks Saturday did nothing but achieve plans for more talks, in Baghdad in six weeks—which meant they were “without question a success.” The important thing, diplomats tell him, was to test Iran’s seriousness, and Iran came out looking serious—“that was a low bar to hurdle and represented no real breakthrough, and there were no negotiations here on specific steps or proposals.”

The one bit of “news” to be found (or at least that I was keen enough to find)? Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili apparently spent 90 minutes with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the other side, trying to get some sanctions removed—a sign that the regime recognizes the threat of a crumbling economy and collapsing currency. His request was denied—a sign of the resolve not just of the West but of Russia and China too.

The next question is how well Iran, beset by internal splits, and the alliance ranged against it respectively hold together over the next six weeks. Already, potential signs of a rift have appeared between—you won’t guess this—the United States and Israel. The White House called the talks a “positive first step,” which was de rigeur if you were one of the P5 +1 (the U.N. Security Council members and Germany) represented at the talks. But if you’re Prime Minister Netanyahu (whose country is not a member of the P5 +1 and most certainly was not invited to the Turkey-hosted affair), you see Iran reportedly requesting explicitly the obviously implicit promise that no attack be made on its facilities while talks are underway, and you complain, “My first impression is that Iran has received a gift.” And then if you’re President Obama you might fire back, “So far at least we haven’t given away anything, other than the opportunity for us to negotiate and see if Iran comes to the table in good faith.” This masks (barely) a disagreement over the efficacy of engaging a regime that time and again has proven intransigent and which has almost sociopathically used the facade of negotiations to buy itself time.

Real talk: the can is being kicked down the road. Iran has not reached the U.S. threshold point yet, and as long as it hasn’t, there are options and possibilities that exclude military action—further disruption, whether by covert sabotage, sanctions, assassinations and the like; the possibility of a change within Iran; an actual diplomatic breakthrough; something we haven’t even thought of. Once the threshold has been reached or once Israel attacks, everything changes, and lots of those possibilities become closed off (even as others surely become opened up). The administration has determined that a military attack is premature, and it knows Israel will look exceedingly bad in world opinion if it attacked Iran while Iran was ostensibly engaged in talks; it also knows that the November election makes for an interesting milestone. Given all this, it has decided that continuing talks, even for the sake of continuing talks, provides its own reward.

If you broadly agree with the administration on the wisdom of attacking Iran, as I do, this all sounds pretty good. And then you read that Iranian officials were present at North Korea’s (failed, as it turned out) warhead launch. At the least, things like that put tremendous pressure on the notion that Iran’s nuclear program is purely peaceful. At the worst, it suggests that the problem is more urgent than the news out of Istanbul, where talks supposedly accomplished something by accomplishing nothing, seems to say.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.