Lowering Expectations

The Obama administration has gotten what it wanted, direct, condition-free talks with Iran. Rather than seeming triumphant, however, the administration is trying to lower expectations for what its engagement with Iran will accomplish. You can see that process at work in today’s analyses of the talks by the New York Times and Washington Post.
The Times writes:

President Obama got what he said he wanted when United States negotiators met with their Iranian counterparts this week in Geneva: direct engagement, without preconditions, with Iran. But the trick now for Mr. Obama, administration officials concede, will be to avoid getting tripped up. In other words, is the Iranian government serious this time?
The clearest risk is that the Iranians may play for time, as they have often been accused of doing in the past, making promises and encouraging more meetings, while waiting for political currents to change or the closed ranks among the Western allies to break.

The purported achievement of this week’s talks was Iran’s alleged agreement to send its enriched uranium to other countries to be turned into fuel. The problem is that the agreement seems illusory:

“No, no!” Mehdi Saffare, Iran’s ambassador to Britain and a member of the Iranian delegation to the negotiations, said, according to the Associated Press. He said that the idea of sending Iran’s enriched uranium out of the county had “not been discussed yet.”

The Times, being the Times, can’t resist taking a shot at former President Bush:

If Iran has really agreed to send most of its openly declared enriched uranium out of the country to be turned into fuel, that is a significant concession, experts said, and much more than the Bush administration ever got over the years of its nonengagement dance with Iran.

But, if you read a mere four paragraphs on, you learn that Iran made exactly the same apparent concession in 2007, when Bush had the Europeans negotiating with Iran:

This is not the first time that Western officials have left discussions with their Iranian counterparts thinking they had a deal, only to see it melt away. In 2007, European diplomats said they thought they had wrung a concession from Iran on the same issue, enriching uranium outside the country for use in Iranian reactors, only to have Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reject the idea as an infringement of Iran’s sovereignty.

The Times must think its readers have short attention spans. The Obama administration, mindful of history, is playing this one cautiously:

“That’s the big ‘if,’ isn’t it?” a senior Obama administration official said. “Will they do it? No one wants to do a premature victory lap.”

The Post’s analysis, by Jackson Diehl, is even more cautious, not to say pessimistic:

The Obama administration’s positive tone following its first diplomatic encounter with Iran covers a deep and growing gloom in Washington and European capitals. Seven hours of palaver in Geneva haven’t altered an emerging conclusion: None of the steps the West is considering to stop the Iranian nuclear program is likely to work.

This conclusion evidently reflects the Obama administration’s assessment:

For obvious reasons, senior officials won’t state this broad conclusion out loud. But it’s not hard to find pessimistic public statements about three of the four options. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the prospects for diplomacy “very doubtful.” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said military action will do no more than “buy time.” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, echoing private statements I’ve heard from the Obama administration, told me last week that a strategy of backing the Iranian opposition “would take too long” and might well produce a government with the same nuclear policy.
As for sanctions, Western officials rarely disparage them in public. They don’t want to help spoilers in Russia and China who want to block U.N. action against Iran for their own reasons. But many are doubtful about them, and with good reason. Despite hints of cooperation by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the White House is pessimistic that Russia or China will agree to the sort of escalation in sanctions that would command Iran’s attention, such as a ban on gasoline supplies or arms sales or new investments in oil and gas production.

So where does that leave the U.S. and its Western allies?

The Obama administration and its allies have said repeatedly that they will pursue diplomacy until the end of the year and then seek sanctions if diplomacy hasn’t worked. That sets up a foreseeable and very unpleasant crossroads. “If by early next year we are getting nothing through diplomacy and sanctions,” says scholar Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, “the entire policy is going to be revealed as a charade.”
What then? Pollack, a former Clinton administration official, says there is one obvious Plan B: “containment,” a policy that got its name during the Cold War. The point would be to limit Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons or exercise its influence through the region by every means possible short of war — and to be prepared to sustain the effort over years, maybe decades. It’s an option that has been lurking at the back of the debate about Iran for years. “In their heart of hearts I think the Obama administration knows that this is where this is going,” Pollack says.

But a critical component of the West’s successful containment of Soviet power was nuclear deterrence. Russian leaders were evil but not suicidal, so deterrence worked. Iran’s leaders may, in fact, be suicidal; they may also be willing to arm their proxy terrorist groups with nuclear weapons. In this context, it is hard to understand how “containment” can be a viable model for dealing with Iran.
Diehl’s conclusion is pessimistic:

For the next few months we’ll keep hearing about negotiations, sanctions and possibly Israeli military action as ways to stop an Iranian bomb. By far the best chance for a breakthrough, as I see it, lies in a victory by the Iranian opposition over the current regime. If that doesn’t happen, it may soon get harder to disguise the hollowness of Western policy.

I think that’s right. Why, after all, would the mullahs agree to forgo their nuclear weapons program? Even in nascent form, it gives them more power than anything else in their arsenal. If they were to terminate that program, in a definitive, verifiable way–putting aside whether that is even possible–they would lose their greatest source of international influence. From their perspective, continuing the program is an easy decision. If the West is willing to make concessions now, how much more will Iran be able to get once it is established as a nuclear power? If you put yourself in the mullahs’ place, it is hard to understand why they would do anything other than continue “negotiating” endlessly, occasionally make an apparent concession or two, put out word about the increasing influence of “moderate” factions, and generally try to confuse and divide Western leaders (and Western voters) while all the while working away at building bombs and missiles.
No wonder the Obama administration doesn’t want anyone to get too excited about what happened this week.

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