A not very surprising 'October surprise'
You realy have to give credit where credit is due. The New York Times is pushing a story that the Obama administration will hold one on one talks with Iran after the election on their nuclear program.
Shocking, eh? Except the White House denies the story. The Iranians deny the story. And even the New York Times questions the veracity of its own article.
Why, then, was it published?
Some pure speculation follows; the Times needed a framework to discuss foreign policy in advance of the debate on Monday night -- a framework that would make Obama look statesmanlike and Romney look like a war mongering putz. The idea of talks with the Iranians - something that has been discussed for 30 years and has actually been happening in secret for that long - is a perfect illustration of how the Obama campaign and its allies in the media would like to portray the difference in outlook between their candidate and Romney.
This is a non-story from the get go. Read carefully and you'll be struck by the fact that there is nothing there; that any "agreement" to talk hasn't even been cleared with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei - a sure sign that there isn't an agreement and "US officials" quoted by the Times are either engaging in pure politics, or wishful thinking. Since there is no agreement, one must ask why the Times is running the story in the first place?
Some quotes from the article to illustrate the point:
The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.
Dramatic, huh? Not so fast:
It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world's major powers to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions, but it could pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy time.
It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
"Nearing a diplomatic breakthrough?" How can an agreement to talk - something the Iranians have been doing for 5 years with the P+1 countries - constitute a "breakthrough" of any kind? I'd say that the Times is spinning wildly to put the best possible face on the story for the president.
A story about talks with Iran has now become a political story. And here is where we are informed that this is a non-story, that the Times doesn't have it:
The White House denied that a final agreement had been reached. "It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said Saturday evening. He added, however, that the administration was open to such talks, and has "said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
Reports of the agreement have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran.
There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Mr. Obama is re-elected. Iran has a history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it. In this case, American officials said they were uncertain whether Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort. The American understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him, an administration official said.
It isn't just that Iran might use the talks as a stalling tactic. The reason it is impossible to negotiate with Iran is because you don't know who you are negotiating with. Khamenei, and Khomeini before him, have used the Hitlerian strategy of playing factions in his government off of one another in order to keep them divided so that they can't unite against him. It's very effective in an authoritarian regime, but makes negotiations impossible.
You may recall the case of the three American hikers who were arrested and charged with spying last year. Several times, it was believed a deal had been reached for their release, only to see prospects melt away when another faction in the Iranian government disagreed and prevented the transfer. Something similar is almost certainly at work here. Even if there is a secret deal for talks, the chances of them even taking place are minuscule. And what kind of an agreement could we expect from the talks when the Supreme Leader might not even feel bound by its tenets?
The Iranians are also denying that any talks have been agreed to:
"We don't have any discussions or negotiations with America," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a news conference on Sunday. "The (nuclear) talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations. Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States."
Several rounds of talks this year between Iran and world powers, dubbed the P5+1, have failed to yield a breakthrough.
Michael Ledeen sees more than meets the eye:
The Times' journalists - Helene Cooper and Mark Lander - then treat us to an attempt to calculate the political significance of their story, but that is as foggy as the report itself. Maybe it would help Obama claim some sort of breakthrough. On the other hand, maybe it would leave him open to the charge that Iran is using him to stall for time. Who knows? They quote America's favorite negotiator, Dennis Ross, who is of course all for the talks, and even has a negotiating strategy all ready. And they quote Nicholas Burns, who is also supportive.
This last is a bit curious, since Burns, who was Condoleezza Rice's top negotiator with the Iranians, actually believed he had negotiated a "grand bargain" with the Iranians in 2006. The Iranians would suspend nuclear enrichment and we would lift sanctions. Except that the Iranians failed to show up for the signing ceremony at the United Nations, and Rice and Burns sat in New York waiting for the Iranian airplane to take off from Tehran. Apparently Mr.Burns didn't learn the obvious lesson.
A story being pushed by the Times that suggests talks that both sides deny will happen, but that reflects well on President Obama's non-military efforts to stop the Iranian enrichment program? What a coincidence that w'e're having an election in about 2 weeks.
Indeed, the Times hits Romney hard on his Iranian positions:
Beyond that, how Mr. Romney responds could signal how he would act if he becomes commander in chief. The danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives.
"It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven't had such discussions," said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with Iran as under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
They set up the war monger strawman and then bravely shoot it down by accusing Romney of wanting to go to war without negotiations. Rather than looking like someone who doesn't trust the Iranians for opposing the talks, the Times says that "it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives." Nobody has ever said Romney wouldn't negotiate, but why should he accept this particular imaginary deal to talk, rather than seek his own agreement?
Not mentioned by the Times is the long standing US position that no talks will take place unless Iran halts its enrichment activities. Iran has repeatedly insisted that this won't happen which means either that there has been an extraordinary cave in by the Iranians, or the Obama administration has dropped that requirement. No word on this change of policy, if that's what it is. Big surprise.
In summary, the Times piece is not news; it is campaign propaganda for the Obama team. And it has guaranteed to put Romney on the defensive when it comes to Iran during the debate on Monday night.