The Fog of Diplomacy: Creating a False Picture of the Iran Nuclear Talks

"Both sides were making demands going well beyond what they knew they would accept in the end, hoping to make the more moderate demands more acceptable."

The extension of the Iran nuclear negotiations for another four months surprised many in the political elite and the news media. The consensus was that the talks were failing, because as U.S. officials had said repeatedly, Iran was refusing to agree to reduce its enrichment capabilities radically to assure the P5+1 that the nuclear program was solely for peaceful purposes.

That U.S. official line has shaped media coverage of the talks for months. But that picture of the state of the negotiations assumed that public statements about the positions of the two sides reflected the whole reality of the negotiations. What was actually happening was that both sides were making demands going well beyond what they knew they would accept in the end, hoping to make the more moderate demands more acceptable.

The same diplomatic maneuvering is practiced in any series of international negotiations, but in this case, the fog of diplomacy was more dense than usual. One reason is that the Obama administration felt that it had to manage the public discourse about the negotiations in the United States to avoid losing control of public opinion to the pro-Israeli right in Congress.

But the Obama administration had also been using a range of methods to put pressure on Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program since Obama’s first days in office. Obama had given his blessing to the NSA-CIA-Israeli plan for the “Olympic Games” cyberattacks on Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant as a form of pressure on Iran’s policy; the administration had peddled the line that it couldn’t control Israel much longer unless Iran entered into serious negotiations, and it had produced the sanctions regime to deprive Iran of much of its oil export earnings.

Even before the negotiations on the comprehensive agreement began in May, the Obama administration had put out the central political line that has shaped media coverage of the talks ever since: that the United States was going to demand that the length of time it would take Iran to enrich enough uranium to weapons-grade for a single bomb be less than six to twelve months. Secretary of State John Kerry established that premise last April when he promised the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that that the administration would seek a “breakout time” of more than one year but might settle for no less than six to twelve months, compared with the two months he said was the current estimate of Iran’s breakout capabilities.

In an article in The National Interest, former Obama administration proliferation official Robert Einhorn explained what that demand would mean: Iran would have to agree to reduce the total number of centrifuges from 19,000 to “a few thousand”, Einhorn wrote. Anything more than that, he suggested, would allow Iran to continue to have a breakout timeline that was simply too short.

That became a recurring theme in the news coverage of the talks. In May and June, briefings by U.S. officials hammered away at the idea that Iran was resisting the reasonable steps that were needed for a settlement. On June 20, for example, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said, “What is still unclear is whether Iran is really ready and willing to take all of the steps necessary to assure the world that its nuclear program is and will remain exclusively peaceful.”

The whole idea that the United States could not be assured that Iran would not rush to a bomb unless Iran agreed to dismantle 75 or 80 percent of its centrifuges was a clever bit of political theater. Few serious analysts of the nuclear issue take the “breakout” concept very seriously, because it involves a scenario of Iran kicking out the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and starting to enrich uranium as fast as possible in order to get enough to build one bomb that is entirely implausible. Former national intelligence officer for the Middle East Paul Pillar has called the “breakout” concept “a scary fantasy” and “badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position….”

But even if it were a valid measure of Iran’s good faith, lengthening the “breakout” time to six to twelve months would not require that Iran get rid of 75 to 80 percent of its centrifuges. It could be done by reducing some of the centrifuges, as well as reducing Iran’s stockpile of nearly 8.5 metric tons of low-enriched uranium.

The administration also knew that Iran had been prepared for a deal to reduce as much as half of the 19,000 centrifuges it had installed, because Iran has ostentatiously refrained from making them operational for years, suggesting that they were to be bargained away in eventual negotiations.