Laura Rozen, the go-to journalist for inside stories on the nuclear talks between Iran and the "West", posted a significant but curious story last night:
The Obama administration is considering putting forward a broader proposal to Iran, rather than the more incremental one presented at a meeting last month in Baghdad, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.
Those arguing in favor of the "go big" approach say their thinking has been influenced by two recent diplomatic encounters with Iran that cast doubt on the viability of an incremental deal, as well as by Israeli concerns over any interim deal being the last one reached with Iran for the next few years, officials said.
That's a great narrative. As it appears that the negotiations with Tehran, stalled in the formal meeting in Baghdad two weeks ago and descending into posturing and criticism afterwards, will break down, Washington brings in the surprise settlement to save the process. Victory snatched from the jaws of diplomatic defeat.
A great narrative and, like many great narratives, entirely fictional.
Let's start with some revision of recent history in Rozen's summary:
International negotiators have, to date, proposed a step-by-step incremental process for resolving international concerns about Iran's nuclear program. They laid out a detailed proposal for an interim confidence-building measure at their last meeting with Iran in Baghdad in May. That proposal asked Iran to stop its 20 percent enrichment activities, ship out its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, and halt operations at Fordo, a fortified, uranium-enrichment site near the Iranian city of Qom. In return, the international community offered various cooperation with Iran's civil-nuclear program, isotopes for Iran's medical reactor, and a lifting of sanctions on exports of US civilian aircraft parts for Iran.
You say "confidence-building"; I say "confidence-breaking". Rightly or wrongly, what Tehran expected in Baghdad was a significant exchange by the 5+1 Powers for its concessions. The opening session of the talks established that this was not going to happen.
Consider the above passage. The Islamic Republic would give up its processing of uranium to 20%, the project in which it has invested great effort and resources with the opening of the second site at Fordoo.
Not "suspend" enrichment. "Halt" it on a long-term, if not a permanent, basis.
And in return? There is no indication in the above summary that the US and the Europeans would recognise Iranian enrichment to any level, say 3.5% or 5%, even though this was discussed in detail before Baghdad, even though US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that this was on the table.
There is no indication in the above of a significant easing of sanctions in return for the Iranian shut-down of 20% capability, accompanied by an inspections and safeguards regime to ensure this happened. There is the reference to "a lifting of sanctions on exports of US civilian aircraft parts for Iran". However, rather than a meaningful step, that might have been regarded as an insult by Tehran --- its contention is that, as the embargo has endangered the lives of Iranians in its aging airplanes, the blocking of of parts should never have been imposed in the first part.
Put bluntly, the approach at Baghdad was only "incremental" on the American side; on the other, the Iranian concessions were expected to be far more.
And then there is the Emperor's New Clothes in the story. There is not a single word on the content of the "broader proposal" that Washington may now present. Nothing on enrichment or inspections or sanctions or co-operation on non-nuclear issues.
So if the supposed point of the story is ephemeral, what is the real explanation for its appearance?
Break the article down and the immediate division is not between the US and Iran, but within the American ranks. One faction wanted to go to Baghad with a detailed proposal for an agreement.
Another faction wanted to ensure that the Iranians offered the first, substantial concession before Washington gave up any of its cards. Perhaps this was out of a desire to bring Tehran to its knees, given the perception that the Iranians face an economic crisis; perhaps it was out of fear of the "Israeli concerns...afraid that we [would] agree to a s----- deal".
At Baghdad, the latter US group prevailed in the initial approach. Its problem, however, is that the Iranians never offered a concession; instead, Tehran's negotiators countered with a general proposal that pulled back from the specific consideration of the nuclear issues.
Suddenly, the talks were on the point of breakdown. They were rescued by hours of intense discussion and manoeuvres, but only to agree that there would be another set-piece in Moscow on 18-19 June.
Now the prospect of breakdown has arisen again, even before the parties gather in Russia. The Islamic Republic's leaders are signalling that, despite the prospect of the European Union's cutoff of imports of Iranian oil from 1 July, they will face any economic storm --- blaming the consequences on the "West".
Some officials in Washington, to stem that development for the short-term, put out the line to Rozen that they have a cunning plan. At this point, however, that plan appears to be no more than rhetoric. Not only that, it's rhetoric backed by a fist: "Senior policy officials at the Defense Department are said to have favored offering a bigger deal to Iran, accompanied by a military threat were it not accepted."
Hmm.... A "take it or leave it to our armed forces" approach? Not sure I see that as the unexpected happy ending.