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Nuclear Diplomacy, Crazy Enough to Work?

How dry words like ‘reciprocity’ could produce a deal with Iran

Marc Tracy
April 18, 2012
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili at the talks in Istanbul last weekend.(Olga Adanali/AFP/Getty Images)
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili at the talks in Istanbul last weekend.(Olga Adanali/AFP/Getty Images)

As we know, when Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes about Iran, there’s a good chance he is giving voice to administration sentiments, and that’s certainly one way to read today’s column. The Obama administration wants the recent talks, which produced an agreement to meet again in five weeks, to be seen as a success and as reason for certain interested parties to hold off on military action. Ignatius’ latest argument, which is that there is a clear path forward for Iran to climb down from any nuclear weapons program as well as evidence that it will actually do so, plays into that gameplan.

But Ignatius is only as useful as he is credible. And he’s very credible, a really good journalist. His column is quite persuasive (I hadn’t read elsewhere that Tehran’s stock index experienced a huge gain the day after the talks began). Everybody knows the broad contours of a peaceful resolution: essentially, Iran ditches its 20 percent enriched uranium in exchange for recognition of a peaceful program. What the talks do is provide a framework whereby that deal is made under the diplomatic auspices of “confidence-building” and “reciprocity,” so that all parties, and most of all Iran, save face with their publics. (Note: after writing most of this post, I noticed Blake Hounshell’s takeon Ignatius’s column. He is much less enthusiastic than I, though he agrees, “if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius.”

In this context, Prime Minister Netanyahu was perhaps not (or not solely) being genuinely bellicose with his remark that Iran had been given a “freebie”; rather, he “played his expected role in this choreography.” He reassured his supporters that he remains super-serious and that his words can produce advantages for Israel, and now reports trickle out that the Israeli government is receiving detailed briefings on the talks from the United States. More importantly, Bibi forced Israel and therefore the threat of military action back into the picture, which makes it more likely that international sanctions—which are the best bulwark against both Iranian intransigence and Israeli action—remain in place.

Speaking of: the Senate is set to approve another round of sanctions, and the White House is studiously keeping silent on whether it approves. “If the administration supports the new sanctions, it risks upsetting the new negotiations just as they are beginning,” Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin smartly notes. “If the administration doesn’t support the new sanctions, it leaves them open to GOP allegations of weakness towards Iran in the midst of the presidential election season.” Everybody has publics they need to save face with.

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