There’s an old poker saying that if you look around the table and can’t figure out who the chump is, it’s you. Too often in high-stakes negotiations with two states such as North Korea and Iran, the US has looked a lot like the chump as it tried to curtail those nations’ nuclear weapons programs.
So while it was nice to see Iran at the negotiating table again in Baghdad on Wednesday, only a sucker could be confident that this time Iran really, really means it. The only reason Iran is negotiating now is because it desperately wants relief from increasingly tough sanctions levied by the US and its allies. The sanctions are damaging Iran’s economy. Inflation is well into double digits, among other problems. And they threaten even worse destruction when a European embargo on Iranian oil exports goes into effect July 1.
Talks with Iran have dragged on (and off) for years, but now both sides are running out of time.
Israel considers a nuclear Iran a threat to its existence and has warned that it will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if it nears a “zone of immunity.”
The US and its European negotiating partners also worry that Iran’s nuclear efforts could be nearing a tipping point where a military attack would do little or nothing to slow or stop development of a bomb, though superior US military capabilities push back the timetable.
Iran’s leaders have much more to worry about as the pain of daily life under sanctions pressures ordinary Iranians to seek new leadership.
The resumption of negotiations is better than not talking - and far better than a military attack that could devastate the world oil market, provoke chaos in the Middle East and potentially drag US forces into yet another war - but the news so far isn’t promising. On the eve of the Baghdad talks, Iran reached a verbal agreement with UN nuclear inspectors that could allow access to a facility where inspectors think Iran tested nuclear triggers in 2003. In exchange for that and any further concessions, Iran wants the allies to suspend some sanctions or promise not to impose new ones, such as the oil embargo.
Word from Baghdad on Wednesday was that the US and its partners weren’t buying that gambit, and their scepticism is well placed.
A step-by-step process is fine, and in fact it might be the only way for the Iranians to make concessions without losing face. But in the end, sanctions should be lifted only if Iran agrees to irreversible and verifiable actions, such as turning over the uranium it has enriched dangerously close to bomb-grade levels, shutting down its key enrichment facility, and permitting unconditional inspections of that and other facilities by UN officials. Even that wouldn’t guarantee Iran wasn’t continuing its nuclear program at secret locations elsewhere, but it would be a start.
It’s no surprise that the talks have been so difficult. Iran might be unlikely to strike Israel, which has a massive nuclear deterrent.
But it would gain enormous strategic power from a bomb, far more than its conventional military forces and its support for regional terrorist groups give it now. Containing a nuclear Iran could be possible, but it would be infinitely better not to have to try. This is a poker game the US cannot afford to lose.
–USA Today editorial