Though Iran is poised to be a major foreign policy issue (or political football) in the 2012 elections, Obama’s speech at the U.N. only mentioned Iran in passing. And Ahmadinejad’s predictably controversial speech at the U.N. today will hardly provide for political openings to engage for U.S.-Iran engagement. Yet the immediacy of the need to dialogue with Iran to address issues of concern remains, and several potential opportunities to make progress have recently cropped up.
The outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, has made clear in his recent call that the U.S. should be opening “channels of communication” with Iran:
We are not talking to Iran so we don’t understand each other. If something happens it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right that there will be miscalculations, which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.
Meanwhile, Iran has made apparent attempts to renew negotiations with the P5+1. One came in the form of a letter to E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, which reportedly drops preconditions for talks, and the other was a public statement expressing Iran’s potential willingness to allow “full supervision” of Iran’s nuclear program by the IAEA.
At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s trip to New York comes at a time when he is severely weakened back at home and may be looking to discuss negotiations to increase his political clout ahead of upcoming Majles elections. Evidence for this comes in the noticeable softening of his recent tone and with his claim that Iran would stop enrichment of 20 percent uranium if the West would sell Iran fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor.
Collectively all these things seem to indicate that the timing is right to lay the ground work for negotiations, right?
Not so fast. Even with these positive indicators, the deck seems stacked in the opposite direction.
On the Iranian side, Ahmadinejad’s weakened political state casts doubt on his ability to deliver on his agreement to halt enrichment at the 20 percent level. He enjoys little support in the Majles and he just had a very public falling out with Khamenei. On the other hand, Ahmadinejad’s gambit to get the two American hikers released from prison—in which he took on his rivals in the Judiciary—seems to have yielded results, but not without high drama that further exposed the serious fissures among the government’s political elites.
On the U.S. side, any chance of talks on the sidelines of the UN this week are null—that’s because a ‘no contact policy’ is in place that bans all interactions between American diplomats and their Iranian counterparts. As a result, American journalists have far greater ability to engage the Iranians than American diplomats.
Moreover, in the U.S. we have officially entered the political “silly season” that is the electoral cycle. Rational discussion, already in dwindling supply, has been put on pause in favor of inflated rhetoric by candidates attempting to out-hawk one another on Iran. At such a time, President Obama is more likely to use potential Iranian overtures as an opportunity to look tough on foreign policy than to begin negotiations.
Thus, even though it may seem like the ‘best of times’ to press for negotiations, the political realities in Tehran and Washington make it ‘the worst of times’. As such, there appears to be less opportunity to move the ball forward on the diplomatic front and more opportunity to toss around political footballs.