Lead P5+1 negotiator Catherine Ashton speaks yesterday in Baghdad.(Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/GettyImages)
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Too Much of Nothing Can Make a Man Ill at Ease

Lack of progress in Iran nuclear talks will lead to military action

Marc Tracy
May 25, 2012
Lead P5+1 negotiator Catherine Ashton speaks yesterday in Baghdad.(Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/GettyImages)

The first day of P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran concluded with nothing except an agreement to talk again the following day, as had been planned. And what happened? Yesterday scored the countries involved another talking date: next month, in Moscow. In Istanbul in April, the scheduling of a new round was victory enough. It would be the definition of absurdity to consider the same thing this month in Baghdad to be just as much of one. And there really is no triumph to take away apart from that. The P5+1 countries’ main goal was to get Iran to make concessions on uranium enrichment; its chief negotiator said Iran was “not prepared” to halt uranium enrichment to 20 percent.

The potential solace, except not really, can be found in the timing of the new talks. June 18 and 19 deliberately come fewer than two weeks before the European Union oil embargo goes into effect on July 1—the thing we know Iran would love to avoid. But there’s a Catch-22: Iran seems likely only to make concessions if the embargo (and/or similar sanctions); yet it’s the threat of the embargo (and/or similar sanctions) that would make concessions possible.

A former Iranian negotiator tells influential columnist David Ignatius that the West needs to focus on weaponization, not enrichment, and not to try to make Iran cut a deal “under duress.” But the West is also focused on weaponization—it’s what the U.N. inspectors have been up to for the past week—and it seems silly to suggest that Iran will make a deal only if it doesn’t think vital interests are at stake.

For a deal to happen, it seems to me, the two sides need to share interests rather than be everywhere at odds. Here is where the threat of military action helps: neither side wants it, and therefore both should be able to work toward avoiding it.

And it seems as though military action is basically what comes next if the talks break down. Reports of a finding near the Fordo facility of uranium enriched to 27 percent—that is, past even the 20 percent threshold—probably does not indicate intention to enrich up to weapons-grade 90 percent immediately. But it does suggest erroneous enrichment as a byproduct of reconfiguring centrifuges—the sort of thing you would do if you wanted to give yourself the ability to break out into nuclear-weapons capability even faster. Such reports are likely not to be the last of that type, and so it seems unlikely that Israel, or even the United States, will wait much longer before ditching the negotiating track altogether. Especially when there isn’t really all that much to ditch.

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