The US and Iran are exchanging tough messages these days regarding the negotiations on a possible solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Both countries are setting conditions for unprecedented direct talks between them. In international affairs this situation is referred to as "negotiations on the negotiations."
During the recent international conference in Munich, Vice President Joe Biden said "There is still time, there is still space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed," adding that "the ball is in the government of Iran's court" to show that it is negotiating in good faith. Asked when the US would hold direct talks with Tehran, Biden replied: "When the Iranian leadership, the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), is serious."
Biden hinted that the previous rounds of nuclear negotiations were not serious because Iran was not willing to make any compromises and was merely trying to buy time while advancing toward a nuclear bomb. His message was clear: Washington will not agree to such talks and will not lift the sanctions only in exchange for Iran's willingness to enter into negotiations.
Iran was quick to respond. Its most prominent spiritual leader, Khamenei, and its diplomatic leader, Ahmadinejad, said they were willing to negotiate on the condition that the US and the West "recognize Iran's right" to enrich uranium and lift the heavy sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. The US, of course, cannot accept these conditions, which thwart the negotiations before they even begin and pave the way for the speedy acquirement of a bomb.
It is very possible that the tough stance presented by Iran's leaders stems from their interpretation of Obama's new appointments. John Kerry is already secretary of state, and Chuck Hagel is the designated defense secretary. Both are Vietnam War veterans who oppose, in principle, the use of force in almost all cases.
In contrast to Hagel's testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing, he was against imposing sanctions and using any force, claiming that Iran's nuclear program could not be stopped anyway. During his testimony Hagel failed when he referred to the regime in Iran as "legitimate." Iran's leaders interpreted the nomination of Hagel and Kerry, as well as Biden's invitation to negotiate, as signs of weakness that should be taken advantage of to advance the nuclear program and set stiff pre-conditions for the launching of negotiations.
The current deadlock threatens to ruin Obama's strategy vis-à-vis Iran. He planned to impose harsh sanctions that would soften Iran's stance and lead to direct negotiations that would have a good chance of stopping Tehran's race towards a bomb. It turns out that the sides are pursuing two opposing goals: The US wants Iran to stop enriching uranium, while Iran wants the West to lift sanctions. In case negotiations are not held, Iran will continue to develop nuclear weapons and Obama will stand by his commitment to prevent it from obtaining these weapons, meaning he may find himself in a situation whereby only military action can prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
The diplomatic gunfire exchanged between the sides recently does not close the door on negotiations. The negotiations on the negotiations will continue in open and perhaps also in secret channels. During his upcoming visit to Israel, Obama will have to clarify what he plans to do in case sanctions and diplomacy fail to yield results.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is director of the Bar-Ilan University School of Communications and research associate at its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies
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