Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion L.A.
Opinion Opinion L.A.

McManus: The Iran squeeze

The Obama administration faces two dangers in its nuclear negotiations with Iran, which began in a burst of optimism last weekend after the two sides managed to get through a day and a half of talks without anyone walking out.

One danger, of course, is that the talks could fail. The other is that they might succeed.

Failed talks would lead to calls for airstrikes by the U.S. or Israel on Iran's nuclear installations. But even if the talks succeed — or, more precisely, if they succeed only part way — any agreement that comes out of them is certain to draw fire.

If Iran comes to the next round in May offering to freeze its uranium enrichment in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions, the United States and its allies will have to reach agreement among themselves on how far they are willing to compromise with the mullahs in Tehran in hope of getting a broader agreement down the road.

And the deal-making will come in the middle of a tough U.S. election campaign, in which Republican candidate Mitt Romney has already accused President Obama of "weakness" where Iran is concerned. The United States, its European allies, Russia and China are asking Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium, to export the enriched uranium it has already made, to close the once-secret Fordow nuclear facility under a mountain near Qom and to give United Nations inspectors unfettered access to its sites.

Iran, for its part, wants an end to the array of foreign economic sanctions that have finally begun to cripple its economy, beginning with a delay in a European embargo on purchases of Iranian oil that's scheduled to begin July 1.

That's a big, ambitious list of goals on both sides, and coming to any agreement will take time and patience. The two chief negotiators, Saeed Jalili of Iran and Catherine Ashton of the European Union, have been repeating two phrases over and over: Any agreement will be "step by step" and will be achieved on the basis of "reciprocity," meaning each side will have to give a little.

The good news is that the Iranians appear more serious about making a deal than they have in the past. Yes, Jalili asked for an immediate suspension of new sanctions without anything in return; but when he was turned down, he returned to businesslike negotiations over the timetable and structure of the next round of talks.

It was also a good sign, U.S. and European officials said, that Jalili's title this time was personal representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In earlier negotiations, Jalili represented President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which allowed Khamenei to walk away from the results, as he did in 2009.

But the best sign of all may have been the ebullient way the Iranians spun the negotiations back home in Tehran. Jalili and other officials portrayed the talks as a victory for Iranian steadfastness, and repeatedly noted Khamanei's fatwa outlawing nuclear weapons as a sin. The deputy commander of the radical Revolutionary Guard said that "the West was forced to accept the reality that the Islamic Republic is not in pursuit of nuclear weapons," according to the Tehran Times. And Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he could live with a deal that halted uranium enrichment as long as Iran was assured nuclear fuel for medical isotopes.

It sounded like a public relations campaign to allow the Iranian leadership to portray any future compromise as exactly what Tehran has been asking for all along.

In Washington, Obama administration officials sounded more defensive than optimistic, insisting that no sanctions would be suspended unless Iran took real steps. "We haven't given away anything," Obama said in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's complaint that Iran had been granted "a freebie." And the administration emphasized that time is short for Iran to make a deal,

That's because the U.S. and its allies are properly wary that Iran might try to turn negotiations into a stalling exercise while it continues to amass nuclear fuel.

By diplomatic standards, these talks are on a fast track. Experts from both sides are supposed to exchange proposals over the next few weeks, followed by another high-level meeting May 23.

At that point, Iran may offer to make an offer, but it's likely to be a prickly, partial offer. The question for the United States and its allies, including Israel, will be whether they are willing to take that kind of yes for an answer. It will take patience and forbearance on all sides for these talks to succeed — and Obama will have to exercise that forebearance while under fire in an election campaign.


Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Supreme Court gets it right on Jerusalem passport case

    Supreme Court gets it right on Jerusalem passport case

    The Supreme Court on Monday handed President Obama — and his successors — a significant and deserved victory when it ruled that recognizing a foreign government is the "exclusive" province of the executive branch. By a 6-3 vote, the justices struck down a provision in a law passed by Congress in...

  • Divided on Jerusalem

    Divided on Jerusalem

    On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Obama administration in a case involving a Jerusalem-born boy and his parents who wanted to take advantage of a 2002 law that allows Israel to be listed as the country of birth on the passport of a child born in Jerusalem. In 2011, when the high...

  • They're Palestinians, not 'Israeli Arabs'

    They're Palestinians, not 'Israeli Arabs'

    Can you imagine reading an editorial in a respected newspaper today discussing the rights of "Negroes" or "Chinamen"? Probably not. And yet, like other newspapers in this country, The Times continues to use the generic term "Arabs" or "Israeli Arabs" to refer to the Palestinians who live inside...

  • Netanyahu's remarks on Israel's Arab citizens part of a disturbing conversation

    Netanyahu's remarks on Israel's Arab citizens part of a disturbing conversation

    Under pressure from around the world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized Monday for his last-minute campaign diatribe in which he declared ominously that the Arab citizens of Israel were being bused to the polls “en masse” and were “distorting” the election by simply exercising...

  • Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress comes at right time, right place

    Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress comes at right time, right place

    Imagine for a moment that your neighbor down the street was engaged in some basement science that could level your house and even kill you, if he so desired. Your best friend, who happens to live some distance away, out of harm's reach, can end the threat to your life and property but is now trying...

  • Putting Israel's name back on the map

    Putting Israel's name back on the map

    Mapping the world is not as easy as it seems. Border disputes make it difficult to draw national boundaries that everyone can agree on. Countries come and go over time and maps must be redrawn, even reconceived. When Crimea is annexed by Russia or the West Bank is occupied by Israel, when Japan...

  • The Palestinians' decision to join the ICC deserves support

    The Palestinians' decision to join the ICC deserves support

    The Israel exception to Western governments' human rights principles has been starkly on display in the reaction to the Palestinian Authority's decision to join the International Criminal Court. In Washington, Ottawa, Paris and London, as well as Tel Aviv, the response has ranged from discouraging...

  • The Israel boycott that backfired

    The Israel boycott that backfired

    For about a year, the American Studies Assn. has been offering a very public object lesson in how to destroy a scholarly organization. Ostensibly devoted to the study of all things American, the 5,000-member academic cohort has ventured outside its natural borders and into the crossfire of Israeli-Palestinian...