Monday, November 18, 2013

The Test of Truth in Iran Negotiations

Parsing the language of diplomacy is always a dicey business, and it behooves journalists who try to do so to walk the extra mile in pursuit of truth.

 Some years ago Japan sent a high-level delegation to Washington to try to resolve a trade and monetary issue that was driving a wedge into the two nation's relationship.  When the first session ended,  the two sides addressed reporters from the American media. The Japanese spokesperson seemed to echo the American briefer with cautiously optimistic comments that suggested Japan was beginning to soften its position.  Then the Japanese delegates went to another venue to brief the Japanese media corps.  Dick Halloran, the New York Times reporter covering the talks, who had become fluent in Japanese preparing for a stint as Tokyo correspondent, went to the briefing for the Japanese press and heard an entirely different story: Japan, its spokesperson said, was standing firm on its hard line.

The lede of Halloran's story, which I edited,  reflected the two-faced briefing.  It had barely begun to move on the wire when my phone rang.  It was the Japanese Embassy press attache insisting Halloran had it wrong and demanding that we change it.  I beckoned for Halloran to listen on another phone. When Halloran, in flawless Japanese, quoted exactly what was said at the second. all-Japanese briefing there was an embarrassed silence and the line went dead.

Last week, when the first session of the *Gang of Six talks with Iran ended with no progress on nuclear issues, no American reporter went the extra mile, and the U.S. public was handed the usual "we blame them and they blame us but our case is stronger" coverage.

*(Gang of Six=P5+1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- U.S., U.K., China, Russia and France -- plus Germany.) 

Gareth Porter, a Brit and one of the best reporters now covering the Middle East, did his footwork.  Turns out that as the talks were ending, there was a preliminary deal, a set of conditions that would enable the delegations to pursue an end game to more than 30 years of strife, sanctions, sabre-shaking and mutual recrimination.

Our dear ally, Bibi Netamyahu of Israel, saw the most dire threat yet to his dream of dominion in the entire Middle East.  He pulled out all the stops to persuade his pals in France to redact the final draft with more hawkish language on critical issues, particularly the heavy water production facility in Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has known about the facility since 2002 and believes that that it is intended as a benign facility. 

 France's draft changes on Arak, and other issues, were unacceptable to Iran, which learned about them only at the very last minute just as signing of the earlier agreement was about to take place.

The talks are to resume this week, and despite Israel's Franco-shenanigans, there is a glimmer of actual sanity from the black hole of U.S. foreign policy under Obama. Lost in the fooferaw about health care at his news conference last week, were his comments about Iran. Few in the United States media quoted at length from them, because to do so would have made clear that he was sending placating signals to Iran, whose new president's policy shifts opened the door to meaningful talks with the Gang of Six.

He said that negotiation is better than the alternative of military action, which Netanyahu, with his quasi-secret trove of nuclear weapons, craves. ‘‘No matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, are always difficult, always have unintended consequences,” Obama said. Urging Congress not to toughen the already tight economic sanctions against Iran, Obama told the yellow hawks of the house,  "If we're serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there's no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective, and that brought them (the Iranians) to the table in the first place." 

He felt compelled, of course, to reiterate that he doesn't want to see Iran develop a nuclear weapon (without acknowledging that Iran has said all along that it doesn't want one, either).

And, like that Japanese trade delegation years ago, he sent a spokeswoman, Susan Rice, out to rattle swords.  We retain the option, she assured the yellowhawks, to stiffen the sanctions if we decide to declare bad faith on Iran, adding ominously that the military option was still very much on the table.

 As titular head of a government whose actual overlords are super-rich corporations dependent for some or all of their profit on ongoing war, Obama, the Peace Nobelist who once called for a world without nukes, faces a truth test this week.

Was that glimmer of sanity just another spurt of Kidglove doublespeak? Or will a process that is terribly important to the entire world move forward toward peaceful resolution?

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