Anatomy of a deal with Iran

Rajan Menon writes: The on-again, off-again musings about a deal between Washington and Tehran are on again. A deal might reconcile the most important demands of each side: Iran’s insistence that it has a legal right to an independent fuel cycle for what it insists is a nonmilitary nuclear program and the declaration of the United States that Iran must not be permitted to build nuclear weapons. The latest round of speculation follows recent press reports that the two parties have agreed to hold bilateral negotiations following the U.S. presidential elections.

Yet soon after the news broke, both sides weighed in with their own spin. The White House, while reiterating that it has always been open to direct talks, insisted that there has been no formal agreement to hold them. Was this clarification meant to ensure that the American pubic received an accurate account? Was the denial of a formal agreement, preceded as it was by what appears to have been a leak about possible talks between Tehran and Washington, meant to prevent rising expectations that could then be dashed, making the Obama administration look feckless? Or was it, given that Election Day is nigh, designed to show that the administration is making progress on a diplomatic solution but to do in a way that would provide parry charges by Mitt Romney that Obama is rushing toward talks that would allow Iran time to build nuclear arms? There is no clear answer.

Iran quickly dismissed the reports about impending one-on-one talks. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi insisted that Iran was engaged in negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1 but that it was not conducting talks with the United States. This was a tad ambiguous: given his choice of words, Salehi did not deny that Iran had broached the idea of talks or that it had responded positively after the United States had done so.

Is Iran trying to prove that the economic sanctions and the resulting tumble in the rial’s value have not forced it to change course and deal directly with the United States in hopes of relief? Is Salehi’s denial just a tactic designed to allow Tehran to negotiate with Washington eventually but without seeming desperate in the run-up to talks? Is it meant to calm Iranian hard-liners, ever vigilant for indications that the regime is yielding to pressure? Is it a sign that, despite the power attributed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there is no consensus within Iran’s leadership about how to cope with the pressures created by the sanctions? (The rial has lost some 40 percent of its value, Iran has lost half the revenue it gets from oil sale and ordinary Iranians are facing rising prices for basic goods.) Again, this remains unclear. [Continue reading…]

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