Why the winner of the first round of nuclear talks is the Islamic Republic.
On Saturday the P5+1 countries (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) met with Iran in Istanbul for what is being called a “first round” of nuclear talks. By all accounts, it was a “round” with little or no substance—except one major result: the parties agreed to reconvene for another “round” in Baghdad in another five weeks, on May 23.
No one seriously concerned about Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium, its ongoing transfer of centrifuges to its deep-underground Fordo site, its ongoing work on nuclear-weapons development, could be pleased with this result. As Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu put it bluntly: “My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie. It’s got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition.”
Some, though, were indeed happy with the meeting’s outcome.
One was EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton—who not long ago made waves when she reacted to the Toulouse terror by equating the Israeli army with mass murderers. Ashton called Saturday’s talks “constructive and useful” and rhapsodized: “We expect that subsequent meetings will lead to concrete steps toward a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.”
And another party that reacted with great satisfaction was the Iranians themselves. Their chief negotiator Saeed Jalili exulted that the talks were a “positive sign” compared with “the language of threats and pressure that do not work on the Iranian people.”
And AFP reported on Sunday that “Iran’s media, including outlets close to the leadership…hailed renewed talks with world powers as positive[.]” The government-run, English-language Iran Daily trumpeted on its front page: “EU Reaffirms Tehran’s Nuclear Rights.” The newspaper Jomhuri Eslami said the key to progress “is that America give up its political games and surrender to the realities”—that is, of Iran’s ongoing march toward the bomb.
Ominously, various Western reports say that the P5+1, while probably aiming to demand that Iran remove its stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium from the country, is now prepared—unlike in the past—to allow it to keep its 3-percent-enriched stockpile. Ephraim Kam, deputy head of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, notes that the latter stockpile already has enough uranium for three to four nuclear bombs. And if removing that stockpile as well
is not insisted upon, it will not stop Iran from striving toward a nuclear weapon…. [Such] a deal would provide legitimacy to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Even if it is recognized as civilian in nature and is placed under more stringent supervision, it will not be possible to sufficiently oversee Iran’s nuclear-related activity.
The upshot is that the winner of the first “round” is Iran. Even if the reports—and there are many of them—on leniency toward its 3-percent stockpile turn out to be wrong, Iran gains time. May 23 is only a little more than five weeks from July—when the EU’s intensified sanctions on Iranian oil are supposed to start. It is all too easy to picture Iran introducing “proposals” on May 23 that Ashton and others will delightedly find “constructive”—while agreeing to schedule another convocation for, say, about July 1, and also agreeing to put off the ramped-up sanctions while such exciting “progress” is being made.
Meanwhile, of course, Iran could keep its centrifuges spinning while remaining immune—unless Israel were to go very much against the “consensus”—from any military attack.
Where’s the Obama administration in all this? Reports that quote Ashton’s and Jalili’s upbeat assessments of Saturday’s meeting also quote more guarded reactions by U.S. officials. One such official, for instance, told the New York Times that “dialogue is not sufficient for any sanction relief…. There must be an urgent effort and concrete steps…. We believe there is a conducive atmosphere, but we need to test it…the window for diplomacy is closing.”
The problem here is that if Washington is really skeptical and serious as those words seem to imply, it’s hard to square with teaming up with the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese. If such an invincible faith in multilateral diplomacy could, on a kind reading, be ascribed to an invincible naiveté, it could also be ascribed to a tacit collusion with Iran on stalling tactics—stalling tactics aimed at what is still perceived as the real “danger,” Israeli military action, while the world strides blindly down another deadly path of appeasement.
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