Saturday night the New York Times reported : "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." Negotiations, the Iranians purportedly insisted, wouldn't start until after the election. How convenient.
The report, timed just before tonight's final debate on foreign policy smacked of an October Surprise gambit by the administration. But then the administration denied there was such a deal.
In any event Iran promising to talk to the United States is nothing new. It has been playing rope-a-dope with President Obama and his team for almost four years. It agrees to talks or to have talks about talks, all the while moving closer to a nuclear weapons capability. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (and a Romney adviser and surrogate) John Bolton told me, "Iran has always been prepared to negotiate — when it suits them. That is the history of the last 10 years." He also noted the impact of potentially dumping the P5 +1 negotiation format for the one-on-one negotiations the mullahs would dearly love to obtain. "If the Obama administration has in fact been pursuing bilateral talks with Iran from the outset, it has done two things: (1) enhance Iran's view of the strength of its own negotiating position; and (2) completely undercut the administration's incantation that 'all options are on the table.' Iranians sense administration desperation, so no wonder they're not worried." He cautioned against taking this all that seriously: "At most, Iran wants temporary relief from the sanctions. They will never negotiate away the nuclear weapons program. This is simply another effort to buy time and space." Referring to Obama's promise of "flexibility" after the election to Russia's president last spring, Bolton cracked: "Maybe Medvedev clued them in."
Other observers were likewise underwhelmed by the report. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has been involved in sanctions policy. But he, too, warns, via e-mail: "It is not a surprise that Iran is floating the idea of new talks — especially because we're less than three weeks before the election. People need to know how to distinguish a sincere offer from a fraud." He also explained that the idea that sanctions could bring the mullahs to their knees has run up against the Iranians' nuclear timeline. He explains:
They are floating this offer because sanctions are clearly hurting the regime and this will be another Iranian attempt to trade minimal concessions for sanctions relief. American negotiators need to determine whether an economic cripple date — when Iran faces economic collapse — occurs before or after it becomes a nuclear threshold state.
An economic cripple date must come at least six months before Iran reaches its nuclear threshold date since the prospect of imminent economic collapse will need time to crack the nuclear will of Iran's supreme leader — if that's even possible.
[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu established his nuclear red line as late spring or early summer 2013, when the regime will have sufficient 20 percent enriched uranium to make one bomb. So the economic cripple date would have to occur within the next three months for the regime to be staring at imminent economic collapse before Israel's red line in June or July.
FDD's recent analysis, though limited by the availability of reliable information on the Iranian economy, suggests that Tehran likely has sufficient reserves to last well beyond that date, perhaps for two years or more. Massively intensifying the sanctions in the ways currently under consideration by Congress could change that timeline.
Before sitting down for direct negotiations with Iran, the administration needs to develop a reliable economic model for Iran's economy, and an equally reliable nuclear red line, in order to better understand how long they have. And they should share that analysis with Congress, Israel and other important allies.
The greatest risk is another round of protected negotiations allowing Iran to buy more time to develop its nuclear capacity while extracting sanctions concessions from a divided international community that blames America for the failure of diplomacy
Obama's sanctions came too late (after he wasted 18 months on "engagement"), were watered down too much and were unaccompanied by a credible threat of force. If anything, the latest "deal" highlights just how preposterous the entire Obama policy has been. At the debate tonight Romney should make clear that any negotiations should demand Iran give up its nuclear enrichment claims and should entail no weakening of sanctions. Instead of pooh-poohing military force the president and our allies should start planning for military action. It is only the credible threat of force that is likely to deter the regime at this late date.