In the dangerous diplomatic dance with Iran, it looks like we have another side step.
The meeting in Istanbul this weekend which brought together an Iranian delegation with diplomats from six world powers will keep the dance marathon going.
But at the end of the day, it merely postponed to next month the need for real action on getting Iran to live up to the international community’s demand to allow UN inspectors free and unfettered access to the country’s nuclear program.
The West needs to stand firm on those inspections to be assured Iran is indeed pursuing a nuclear program that does not seek to weaponize highly enriched uranium.
For over a year, talks have produced no results. Ten years of economic sanctions have consistently failed. Indeed, it can be argued that sanctions have always had a poor track record in Iraq, Iran and most crises where they have been implemented.
We’ve heard bellicose threats from Israel, which may strike fear in Washington, but are met with a shrug of the shoulders in Tehran. And we have heard Barack Obama just last month liken the rising tensions to the “drums of war.” Tension is high for sure, and the stakes are higher.
For Israel and many conservatives in Washington, the meeting this weekend produced only a dangerous delaying tactic by Iran, giving it another 30 days to produce more enriched uranium. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “freebie.”
To European diplomats and the Obama administration, it was a much needed step back from the brink, a way to reduce the charges that Israel would launch a military strike.
Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group described the Istanbul meeting as a "very positive" step in the right direction.
But he added, "The next round will be more technical and sensitive. Both sides have to carefully navigate the minefield ... between the talks and rigorously pave the ground for a negotiated solution."
Ultimately, the meeting in Istanbul with negotiators from the six powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – can prove to be constructive when they gather again on May 23 in Baghdad, if indeed they stay focused on getting inspectors into Iran immediately.
But here’s what many analysts watching the talks see as the key to success going forward: If Iran does indeed agree to the inspections as outlined in the agreement and the inspectors report that there is no weapons program, then the Obama administration will have to begin to ease the harsh economic sanctions. Success hinges on whether Washington will be willing to accept a civilian nuclear program in Iran in exchange for set guarantees that is indeed making electricity, not bombs.
And to do that Obama’s team will have to brace themselves for an election year dust up with conservative Republicans on this issue.
They will have to be willing to take heat on an oft-peddled perception that Obama has been soft on the forces arrayed against Israel. That will require Obama to present a convincing case that it would be far more dangerous for the whole world to acquiesce to Republican strong-arming and Israeli threats of bombing.
Obama must step it up not only on the diplomatic front, but also on selling the need for diplomacy to a country where people are too often bombarded with the fear mongering of Fox News and to a recalcitrant Republican congress that seems eager to talk tough on Iran without much consideration for just how perilous that talk is.
Trita Parsi, an expert on Iranian-US relations in Washington, wrote that both sides effectively compromised in order to hold this weekend's talks — even if they tried to suggest that it was pressure which brought the other side to the table.
"The real challenge will come in the ensuing rounds of talks, where these principles of engagement will have to translate into concrete steps. It is at that point that we will see if the two sides are ready to pay the domestic political cost of compromise," he said of Iranian leaders' willingness to scale back nuclear development and the West's to ease sanctions.