October surprise?: U.S. to negotiate with Iran over nuclear program

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

With President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney set to square off in a debate on foreign policy tomorrow evening, The New York Times reports that the administration may begin negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program:

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.
[…]
News of the agreement — a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term — comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.

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.

This is an issue where Mitt Romney and Republicans have been hammering Obama. But the White House is, according to the Washington Times, denying the report this morning. Israel isn’t happy with the idea of direct talks with Iran, as the Washington Times notes:

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael B. Oren, told the Times that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”

“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Mr. Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”

The development is one that leaves optimism, depending, of course, on what Iran wants in return for its cooperation. Over at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw explains that the timing of the report is indeed curious:

COME ON! It’s less than three weeks before the election and barely 24 hours before the foreign policy debate between the candidates. Are we supposed to be finding this just a happy circumstance?

The interesting bit here is the notion that there could be unilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran. This opens the door to any number of possibilities, not all of which are good. Why would Iran want to enter into negotiations which didn’t involve France and Germany, long time clients who might provide a bit of a firewall?

To be clear, I’m not claiming that this is some sort of “October surprise” cooked up by the Obama administration. I don’t even know if that would be possible. But the flip side of that coin is that we all know Iran watches the news in general and US politics in particular. If you were in charge of their already troubled nation, would you want to spend the next four years talking to Obama or dealing with Mitt Romney? Putting an offer like this on the table actually gives Iran a number of options. They can always walk away from them, just as they have done in the past. Plus, if they can hand the President a new arrow in his quiver for the foreign policy debate – “Hey! Look at what I’m doing with Iran already! – then they create their own opportunity to influence the US election is a way which might prove beneficial to them down the road.

The White House is looking for something on foreign policy to take away from the on-going Libya cover-up. This would certainly help change that narrative, but only to a point since the overriding concern of voters are economic issues.


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