May 15, 2009

State Dept: “No deadline on talks”

After reports from Haaretz earlier in the week that the Obama administration is considering an October deadline on talks with Iran, and following the Wall Street Journal’s reportage of the same deadlines story, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was confronted at yesterday’s press briefing on the administration’s timeline for engagement.
Personally, I think the poorly-sourced and largely speculative Haaretz report is much ado about nothing.  And I am no more convinced now that the Wall Street Journal has decided to pick it up and run with it–of course there are “senior US officials” more than willing to confirm reports of some talk of a deadline, but that in no way makes it the policy regardless of whatever wishful thinking these folks might be engaging in.
Fortunately, State’s Ian Kelly was pretty definitive yesterday:

QUESTION: Back to Iran , there’s a press report this morning that the Administration is basically going to give Iran until like, the UN General Assembly in September to respond to the U.S. dialogue – an effort hasn’t started yet.
MR. KELLY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does that coincide with your view on it?
MR. KELLY: Well, let me just say that we’re not setting any deadline.
We’re not interested in setting any kind of specific or even notional timeline. We are, of course, monitoring very closely what the Iranians are doing, assessing progress. But it – we don’t have any timeline forward.
What – you know, we’re not going to let this string out forever, of course, but we don’t have any timetable on it.
QUESTION: Well, what —
MR. KELLY: Yes. Sorry, Matt.
QUESTION: They were saying the same thing. They’re saying the same thing, that they are watching the U.S. Administration and waiting for signs of change in policy, so —
MR. KELLY: Well, there is a change in policy. I mean, we have – we’ve decided that we – we’re going to – we want to – we’re going to have a seat at the table, of the P-5+1 table. We’ve decided to engage. We’ve decided that the – our previous approach of isolating Iran didn’t work. And so we want to give engagement a chance.
I’m sorry, Matt. You —
QUESTION: Well, I just – back on the whole idea of the timeline, then.
This was first reported in the Israeli press over the weekend, this whole October idea. You’re saying that that’s incorrect?
MR. KELLY: I’m saying that we do not have any timeline.

Interestingly, buried deep within the Wall Street Journal piece was a fascinating claim attributed to “political insiders in Iran,” who say that Iran could agree to a short-term “freeze for freeze” formula in which Tehran would halt its uranium enrichment in return for the West’s holding off on new sanctions.  The experts say that Iran would then offer to accept stringent monitoring and inspections to ensure its program remains purely civilian in nature in return for sharing technology and expertise.
This was part of the bargain in 2003 that President Bush rejected out of hand because “we don’t talk to evil” — though that offer has essentially remained on the table to this day.  When I spoke with him just before he entered the administration, White House WMD czar Gary Samore said that he supports exactly this type of approach to negotiations–and he represents more of the hard-edged wing of the Obama administration’s Iran team.
If you’re asking for any sort of prediction on what type of engagement with Iran is most likely to be successful–for my money, it doesn’t get any better than this.

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