Cautioning Against Irrational Exuberance on the Iran Talks

By Jeffrey Goldberg

This paragaph from The New York Times's coverage today of the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) in Baghdad brought me up a little short:

The six powers also want Iran to export its current stockpile of 20 percent uranium and down the road, to dismantle the once-secret Fordo enrichment plant, deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom, that is producing it.

It's those three words, "down the road," that stopped me. "Down the road" is not an expression that would cause the Israeli prime minister, or the defense minister, to call President Obama and tell him that they are taking the military option off the table. It would actually cause them to think -- not that they don't think this already -- that the Baghdad talks are a charade. And if they think that, and if they think that the window of opportunity is closing for action (see below to understand why the window, from their perspective, may be closing), they might take action, which is a very bad idea. (It's a bad idea in large part because I believe the U.S., if it came to it, would take military action to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, obviating the need for Israel to do it sooner).

"Down the road" isn't very appealing to President Obama, either. As much as he would like to forestall action on Iran until after November, he is fully aware of the regime's long record of deception and delay, and it's my understanding that the Administration will be reminding other members of the negotiating group that the U.S. does not want to dance with Iran for very long, especially given this news, just out:

A U.N. watchdog report is expected to show that Iran has installed more uranium enrichment centrifuges at an underground site, potentially boosting output capacity of nuclear work major powers want it to stop, Western diplomatic sources say.

Two sources said the Islamic state may have placed in position nearly 350 machines since February - in addition to the almost 700 centrifuges already operating at the Fordow facility - but that they were not yet being used to refine uranium.

Since February! I hope this gives everyone pause.

Michael Singh has some fairly depressing thoughts about potential outcomes for the talks, It's  worth reading the piece in full, but his best case scenario (and he writes in a way to suggest that he thinks this is overoptimistic)  has the parties reaching an interim agreement which, at best only begins the process of addressing the most difficult questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and only establishes general principles for further negotiations. Singh notes that, "Tehran currently has strong incentives to keep the negotiating process alive if only to stave off more severe punitive action. Under such circumstances, Iran has previously demonstrated a great reluctance -- if not inability -- to change course on core policies. In a sense, the regime has proven to be its own worst enemy, alienating potential allies by refusing to engage in even a show of compromise or conciliation."

On the other hand, the Atlantic Iran War Dial is now set at 37 percent -- a 37 percent chance that either Israel or the U.S. attacks Iran's nuclear facilities sometime in the next year, according to a panel of experts corralled by Dominic Tierney. This is down from 48 percent in March. So that's something.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/05/cautioning-against-irrational-exuberance-on-the-iran-talks/257564/