Apocalypse Warning False Alarm; Diplomacy Continues Apace

Since the apocalypse (which Bernard Lewis darkly warned in the Wall Street Journal might be scheduled for today) seems not to be forthcoming, it may be better to focus on more workaday concerns, such as Iran’s decidedly non-apocalyptic response to the Western proposal over its nuclear program. 

Although the full details aren’t out yet, Reuters is reporting what most expected: the Iranians say they’re willing to talk, but not willing to accept American demands that Iran stop enriching uranium as a precondition for talking. Top Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani is quoted as saying that “Iran is prepared to hold serious talks from August 23.” 

The first thing to wonder about is what the European response to this will be. It’s fairly clear that hardliners in the Bush administration are hell-bent on pressing for a UN Security Council vote to impose sanctions, but it’s not at all clear what the more sanguine Europeans will do. The Bush administration would be well-advised to make sure that Iran stays marginalized, and America does not act rashly in a way that turns the tables and marginalizes us. 

Also, notice that the Iranians brought up the one issue that the Bush administration has assiduously avoided discussing as a part of talks: “security cooperation.” This is international politics-speak for “we’re afraid you’re going to attack us.” Until President Bush makes clear that regime change would come off the table in return for Iran’s cooperation on the nuclear issue, the Iranians are going to be scared to death that Washington has the contingency plans out and is looking at military options. 

But the real lesson is how much was lost as a result of the administration’s foolish decision to try to impose a precondition for talks in the first place. A lot of conspiratorial talk around Washington has insisted that the precondition was put in as a “poison pill” to ensure that the diplomacy could go nowhere. I’m not convinced — I think there’s a simpler answer, and that is that the administration thinks, even after the Iraq debacle, that it has a lot of diplomatic and military weight to throw around, and that it could, to coin a phrase, “create its own reality” on the Iran problem. 

Were it not for the unseemly pettiness of the administration’s approach to this aspect of the problem, we could have spent the last two months talking to the Iranians (admittedly they could have still been enriching uranium), instead of waiting for a response from the Iranians (during which time they have been enriching uranium). If the administration had put a grand bargain on the table back at the beginning of summer, we’d be well on our way to getting an answer from Tehran. Instead, we’ve set in motion a largely pointless round of diplomacy that has little prospect of resolving the issue.