US Election Threatens Iran Nuke Deal

The prospect for a peaceful settlement of the Iranian nuclear dispute is now within sight amid various reports that Iran is ready to make concessions to President Obama. But the U.S. election remains an obstacle with Republicans attacking the very idea of one-on-one talks, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times caused a stir over the weekend with a report that the United States and Iran had agreed “in principle” to bilateral negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Negotiations with Iran on that issue have hitherto involved a larger format, with one side, known usually as the P5+1, including the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. Doubts were cast on the Timesreport by official denials from both the U.S. and Iranian governments, and what is publicly known about just what the two sides may have agreed to is at this time still unclear.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney greets President Obama at the second debate. (Photo credit:

Possibly adding to the confusion is an Iranian disinclination to negotiate further even with the P5+1 before the U.S. election identifies who will be leading U.S. policy beginning in January. Further questions have been raised as to why, if there is indeed a factual basis to the Times report, word of such an Iranian-U.S. understanding would leak out now.

Speculation has ranged from the leak being an effort to torpedo bilateral negotiations to the news story instead being part of an effort by the U.S. administration to start preparing public opinion for an agreement reached through such talks.

I have absolutely no inside track on what exactly is the true version of this particular story, but offer this observation: among the most useful negotiations to take place right now would be U.S.-Iranian talks that are held in strict secrecy and that both governments would deny taking place.

The bilateral format, as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the negotiations involving the P5+1, would be useful because the United States is the most important player in the process, because achieving the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement would be aided by not having to reach a multilateral consensus on each concession, and because secrecy could be better preserved with a smaller forum.

Secrecy would be useful because both sides are boxed in by their own hard-line statements and by pressure from those wanting to make the lines even harder. For the Iranian leadership, doing any direct business with the Great Satan is a matter of considerable delicacy and risk. For the U.S. leadership, doing anything that anyone could describe as being nice and reasonable toward Iran is also fraught with political risk.

Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy perceptively noted that the Iranians “would like to get out of their conundrum” given how much sanctions are hurting, but that “both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands. In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.”

The current government of Israel, which is the prime mover in agitating on the Iranian nuclear issue and which disdains the whole idea of negotiating with Iran, is the principal force creating political risk for any U.S. administration that talks with Iran.

The Israeli ambassador to the United States said on Saturday, “We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” thereby invoking the old fallacy that negotiations are some sort of reward for one side rather than what they really are, which is a tool for both sides. The Israeli government, as a principal potential saboteur of progress toward an agreement, ought to be excluded through secrecy from any opportunity to commit such sabotage.

The other, not unrelated, source of political risk and possible sabotage for the U.S. side is the domestic political opposition to the current administration. An anonymous “GOP strategist” said Saturday that for the United States to accept any Iranian offer of direct talks “would be a dream come true for the Iranian leadership to hold power, and maybe even get concessions on their nuclear program,” thereby invoking the old fallacy (which Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the subsequent history of the USSR should have put to rest) that negotiating and reaching agreements with an adversary somehow contributes to the adversary’s domestic strength and longevity.

Note also the use of “concessions” as a dirty word, a usage that implicitly rules out any agreement because concessions by both sides will be necessary to reach one.

There is ample historical demonstration of how secret bilateral negotiations, because they are more conducive to achieving the necessary negotiating flexibility, and because they cut out the naysayers and saboteurs, can achieve positive results when other mechanisms cannot.

Some of that history has been in the not very distant past of the United States. The secret negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts) that finally got the United States out of the Vietnam quagmire are a prime example. Nixon’s and Kissinger’s secret diplomacy with China also comes to mind.

We should hope that right now there are talks going on between Iran and the United States that are so secret they do not even generate leaks to the skillful journalists of the New York Times. There may not be, but we can hope.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

2 comments for “US Election Threatens Iran Nuke Deal

  1. wavettore
    October 22, 2012 at 19:34

    “Phantom war”
    A few Zionist have already planned this War behind the backs of all people
    which will be forced to fight for their own Countries in their obligation as
    The War manipulated by the Zionists will be geographically split on two
    Russia, China and Arab States on one side
    Israel, USA and England on the other.
    Through one strategy of Terror and Deception the Zionists will continue to
    monitor and to separate all people. They hope to face many weak and divided
    oppositions rather than one strong and united.
    No weapons or protests in the streets could ever oppose such Plan.
    In this “carousel” orchestrated by the CIA on behalf of these Zionists, the
    greatest danger to Humankind is not the CIA or the Zionists but the lack of one
    evolutionary change needed for us to step away from that same Direction marked
    in all history and to become one race distinguished from the Animal kingdom.
    “Ten Words”
    If this new manipulated War were to begin, the people should be distinguished from their Religions and cultures.
    The conflict should be defined only pro or against Equality.
    This distinction is there also not to fall back in a past that never knew how to refrain from pointing the finger always at the Jews, before and after every major War.
    The hope resides in one new Reason.
    ….. even if it is not so simple.
    How to find those magic words? How to confront the perception of the people
    to see why one newly discovered transformation, from waves to atoms, also relates to their life and survival? A concept like this could be introduced using a thousand words or maybe in a hundred ways, but only ten words and one way will put in perspective such vital perception.
    The conflict should be defined only pro or against Equality.
    “To the rich and to the poor”
    To the countless crying lambs and to the many blinded deer but also for those few laughing pigs while these 3 are still in great number and surrounded by wolves, one bird from above would say: “look all around and together press for one exit before the trap is closed”.

    • dragontech64
      October 27, 2012 at 01:44

      I looked at your “wavevolution” website. The rampant anti-semitism is disgusting. You say “it’s not the Jewish people, it’s the Jewish culture”. What a freaking cop-out. You think that blaming their culture of the people not the people themselves you can avoid being marked for the racist you are. You try to hide behind bad poetic rhythm and hints of some conspiracy theory that has ABSOLUTELY no evidence, let alone proof. Your hatred poisons your message of paranoid delusion.

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