meeting in New York Thursday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani has said he would like to have an agreement on the matter within three to six months. U.S. officials, however, have said no deal until Iran takes concrete steps to prove it is not developing nuclear weapons.
There are lots of crossed fingers. But since Rouhani's election this summer, a noticeable relaxation has occurred in relations between the United States and Iran. Hopeful signs are everywhere, including in carefully worded conciliatory speeches that President Obama and Rouhani have made at the United Nations in the past several days.
For 10 years, every six months or so, a few reports have bubbled into public attention with speculations about how long it would be before the United States or Israel bombed Iran to take out its nuclear facilities. Some of the most outlandish claims have been made, including that President George Bush would bomb Iran in an "October surprise" to guarantee he would win the 2004 election.
It was that year that James Fallows at The Atlantic wrote about the magazine's "war game," a simulation with real government officials, ex-officials and assorted experts focused as a group on the question of whether to advise the president to use or not use military force against Iran. The simulation's basic assumption was that Iran was, in fact, developing nuclear weapons. All options, as we have heard government officials say many times over the past decade, were "on the table." Those officials have included both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. All options was code for military intervention.
In fact, however, during the Bush administration, one option was clearly not on the table: Direct diplomacy with Iran. The drumbeat for war was pounded hard by the likes of Daniel Pipes, Bill Kristol, John Bolton, Dick Cheney and a multitude of other theoreticians, propagandists and government officials.
In the election campaign of 2008, John McCain was literally part of the bomb, bomb, bomb Iran crowd. Mitt Romney was much the same in 2012, though a tad more reserved in his pronouncements. Meanwhile, the mouthy Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made chest-beating speeches of his own at home and at the United Nations. None of this helped chill growing tension.
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Early on in his administration, Obama offered U.S. concessions for concessions on the part of Iran, but this approach did not bear fruit with Tehran's hard-liners. The White House also left "all options on the table." Those have not involved any provable boots on the ground—although reports of U.S. special forces being in Iran have made the rounds since long before Obama was president. They have also included cyberwarfare in the form of the Stuxnet computer worm that jacked up Iran's uranium-spinning centrifuges.
The U.S. also cranked harder on economic sanctions. These amount to far more than merely blocking certain imports or cutting off banking privileges of Iran's corrupt and ruthless Revolutionary Guard, and they have made the Iranian economy scream. As usual, the hurt has fallen mostly on the most vulnerable.
Now, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls it a "honey trap," a major breakthrough has occurred in the wake of the election to the Iranian presidency of Rouhani, a man widely considered to be a moderate. He has so far lived up to the description, releasing some political prisoners, agreeing that the Holocaust occurred (although some say it was a very hedged acknowledgement) and urging diplomatic talks that would lead to guarantees Iran would never build nuclear weapons. He has also promised more to come. Although it was speculated that Rouhani and Obama might meet at the United Nations last week, at least for a handshake, that didn't happen. But something else has.
The meeting between Kerry and Zarif was the first time in 34 years that a U.S. secretary of state and Iranian foreign minister have spoken face-to-face. Officials a couple of steps down from that level met six years ago. Both men said the meeting was constructive:
"We hope to be able to make progress towards resolving this issue in a timely fashion based on respecting the rights of the Iranian people to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, including enrichment. And, at the same time, making sure that there is no concern at the international level that Iran's nuclear program is anything but peaceful," Zarif told reporters after the meeting.There is a huge amount of hedging in those statements, understandable for two nations that have been at odds for three-plus decades in the wake of the revolution that overthrew the dictatorial shah installed by the United States in the 1953 coup that tossed Iran's elected premier out of office.
"I'm satisfied with this first step," he said. "Now we have to see whether we can match our positive words with serious deeds so that we can move forward."
Kerry, likewise, sounded cautiously optimistic.
"I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to the possibilities of the future," Kerry said.
"There's a lot of work to be done, so we will engage in that work obviously and we hope very, very much—all of us—that we can get concrete results that will answer the outstanding questions regarding the program," he added.
Now, as they say, comes the hard part.
For one thing, Rouhani wants Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that Iran ratified 45 years ago:
“Almost four decades of international efforts to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East have regrettably failed,” Mr. Rouhani said in a translated version of his speech, furnished by Iran’s United Nations Mission.Israel continues to operate under what it calls "nuclear ambiguity," neither confirming nor denying that it has nuclear weapons that everyone agrees that it does have. Israel has said it will “not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” That would seem to clash with reality since it is thought to have put its first bomb into its secret cache no later than 1967. The meaning seems to be it won't be the first to use nuclear weapons. But "nuclear ambiguity" requires obfuscation.
“Urgent practical steps toward the establishment of such a zone are necessary,” he said. “Israel, the only nonparty to the nonproliferation treaty in this region, should join thereto without any further delay. Accordingly, all nuclear activities in the region should be subject to the I.A.E.A. comprehensive safeguards.”
The likelihood of Israel giving up the nukes it won't admit that it has are slim indeed. But long before that could even become one of the options on the table, just convincing Netanyahu and the members of his right-wing government that Rouhani is serious will be tough. Robert Tait at the British newspaper The Telegraph wrote Tuesday:
An official in Mr Netanyahu's office said Mr Rouhani's words on the nuclear programme—which Israel sees as a front to build a bomb and a threat to its existence— were similar to those uttered by Mr Ahmadinejad.Netanyahu has been making claims about Iranian nukes for two decades. In 1992, he predicted Iran was “three to five years” from having a nuclear weapon. It's long past time that Washington stopped listening to him.
"There is no doubt that when Ahmadinejad was president, he said Iran would never build nuclear weapons [and] that the nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes," the official told The Telegraph. "He said that several times. The difference is that Rouhani says it with a smile while Ahmadinejad said it with a frown."