The United States has agreed to hold one-on-one negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, a development that could have a significant impact on Iran‘s capability of developing nuclear weapons—and also on the upcoming presidential election, according to a story in the Sunday New York Times.
The possibility of one-on-one negotiations would complicate matters for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who has accused the Obama administration of not being aggressive enough with Iran in pushing the country to stop enriching uranium— a position that mirrors that of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime close friend of Romney who advises him on Middle East policy. Iran has claimed that its uranium project is for the purpose of developing nuclear energy, not weapons.
According to the Times story, Iran officials want to wait until after the U.S. presidential election to hold the talks, so that they know with whom they will be negotiating. But it’s not even clear that Romney will want to engage in such talks if he beats Obama.
After the Times story appeared, the White House issued a carefully worded denial that left room for the major points in the Times story to still be true.
“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor late Saturday night. But Vietor added that the administration was open to such talks and has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
A close reading of the statement would allow the gist of the Times story to still be true—that the two sides are talking, but have yet to reach final agreement on the nature of the meetings and what would be on the table. Just the willingness of Iran to sit down with the U.S. and talk about its nuclear program would appear to be affirmation of President Obama’s approach to use economic sanctions and international pressure—in other words, diplomacy—to get Iran to get in line, rather than the bellicose threats preferred by Romney and Netanyahu. According to the Times story, Iran is being slammed so hard by sanctions that it is desperate to make them go away. The rial, Iran’s currency, dropped 40 percent in early October.
If Romney comes out and strongly opposes the negotiations, it cold give credence to the claims made by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden that Romney is pushing the U.S. into a war with Iran—something nobody in the U.S. wants.
“It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions,” R. Nicholas Burns told the Times. Burns led negotiations with Iran as under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
Burns said Iran’s nuclear program “is the most difficult national security issue facing the United States.”
“While we should preserve the use of force as a last resort, negotiating first makes sense. What are we going to do instead? Drive straight into a brick wall called war in 2013, and not try to talk to them?”
For its part, Israel said it hadn’t been informed of the U.S. negotiations with Iran and it feared that Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program,” Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., told the Times.
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”