Opinion

The Great Debate

Too many cooks in the Iran nuclear kitchen

Last weekend, after years of failed negotiations, the “P5+1” nations — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany — finally appeared to be on the verge of a deal with Iran regarding curbs on its nuclear program.

All except France were ready to sign a stopgap agreement that would offer Iran limited sanctions relief in return for a freeze in its nuclear program. But Paris torpedoed the arrangement at the last moment — denigrating it as “a sucker’s deal.”

France’s torpedoing of the agreement appears less related to genuine nuclear proliferation concerns than with trying to curry favor with anti-Iranian countries — like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – who commission and buy expensive French military, satellite and nuclear hardware.  The lesson in this latest failure is there ought to be a single point of contact with Iran endowed with executive authority over resolving the nuclear issue.

Iran is now involved in separate discussions with both the P5+1 nations — who cannot seem to reach a consensus themselves — as well as with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). With so many disparate dialogues, requirements and revisions now in motion, it is not surprising that the nuclear issue hasn’t been resolved. There are too many cooks in the Iranian nuclear kitchen.

A hint of the difficulties within the P5+1 nations was revealed last weekend when a unnamed Western diplomat told Reuters how France scotched the imminent deal: “The Americans, the EU and the Iranians have been working intensively together for months on this proposal, and this is nothing more than an attempt by [French Foreign Minister Laurent] Fabius to insert himself into relevance late in the negotiations.”

Looking to diplomacy with Iran

President Barack Obama has decided to test whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm offensive” is a legitimate effort to reach an agreement on a more constricted and transparent Iranian nuclear program. With this decision, he embarks on the most transformative and important diplomatic initiative of his presidency.

The closest historical analogy is President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China in 1971. Nixon had recognized a major adversary’s new willingness to change course and he seized the opportunity to further vital U.S. national security interests.

This China analogy, however, has some flaws. Most important, Nixon and his national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger began their quest in secrecy to avoid a divisive public debate that could have scuttled the initiative. Obama’s public commitment to test an opening to Iran, though, will be subjected to fierce scrutiny by domestic and foreign opponents.

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