U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman left the Iran nuclear talks last Thursday after two apparently fruitless days of negotiations between the two sides. She was sent by the Obama administration to Israel to immediately and personally brief the Netanyahu government on the Baghdad meeting. Reports suggest she and her colleagues spent three hours with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Israeli national security team reviewing the Iranian talks.
There no public differences between the United States’s analysis and the Israel interpretation of the P5 +1 meeting with Iran’s chief negotiator. With the talks now scheduled to reconvene in Moscow on June 18 — only days before the serious economic financial and oil embargo sanctions are to take effect — there is not likely to be much progress in the interim. Nevertheless, the two days in Baghdad did produce some interesting results, stated and otherwise.
For the first time Iran saw that their “give us something for permitting inspection” gambit — such as postponement of the July sanctions — was a total non-starter; although Iran still has the June talks to try to manipulate this one more time. Iran also saw a clear sense of a unified purpose by the P5+1, which must have taken them by surprise. While China and Russia may be weak links in this front, they were not balking here. The dispatch of Sherman to Israel signaled to both Israel and Iran that Israeli concerns — as well as Saudi and Turkish interests — were being considered.
(Given a tight presidential race and the importance of Jewish votes in key states, the White House is determined not to have a confrontation with Israel over the next six months, especially over Iran.)
While Iranian President Ahmadinejad offered some typical rhetoric after the meetings, the sessions themselves did not produce any bellicose statements or challenges. Those may come should the two-day meeting in Moscow end with no progress, coming as it does on the eve of the imposition of the new sanctions. This was either the calm before a major storm, or perhaps Iran is looking for a face-saving way to back down from the confrontation. Rhetoric aside, this may well be the final opportunity to develop a step-down plan for Iran.
Israel sounded cautious yet extremely skeptical. At the same time, there has been a lull in active saber rattling from the Netanyahu Government. Analysts debate whether the expanded coalition will modify Israel’s approach on Iran. The most interesting discussion concerned the internal chemistry among Barak, Vice Premier Shaul Mofaz, and Netanyahu — three politicians with deep roots in the military.
According to David Makovsky director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Israelis will not let the Iran talks drag on forever, but the new security cabinet seems clearly to have moved the military option to third place after diplomacy and a U.S.-driven attack. This also may explain why the chemistry between the Obama administration and Israel appears at the moment to be somewhat improved and why Bibi has been quieter of late.
There is a rule in this type of diplomatic negotiation: If nothing is resolved during a meeting, make sure you leave with a date for another, and diplomatic option remains alive. Unfortunately, that appears to be all that emerged from this round of these talks. With a third set of meetings now set, there is little evidence that Iran is prepared to grant unconditional and unrestricted international inspection or an agreement to reduce their intended level of uranium enrichment. (In fact, there is evidence that Iran may be increasing its level already above the already achieved 20 percent, putting them clearly at point approaching weapons grade.)
The slight optimism that preceded this second round of talks was clearly illusory, while the results affirmed the expectations of the pessimists.