When it comes to international diplomacy, success tends to be in the eye of the beholder. That's certainly been the case in the latest bout of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
The most recent installment in that long-running affair, which concluded in Baghdad last week, failed to yield a substantive agreement between Tehran and the West concerning Iran's persistent nuclear ambitions. For some, this reinforced the folly of dialogue with the Iranian regime—and confirmed suspicions that Tehran has no interest in "getting to yes" with the international community. Others, however, have been left with an entirely different impression: that progress was made, a deal is still possible, and Iran is interested in (and responsive to) efforts at "engagement."
With such wildly divergent views of what transpired in Baghdad, it's worth reviewing just what did—and what we can expect next.
In the run up to the Baghdad talks, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano traveled to Tehran in search of greater access to Iran's nuclear facilities for his agency. He came away with a tentative deal for new IAEA inspections, including an Iranian pledge to provide access to Parchin, a key facility believed linked to the regime's nuclear weapons development to which the UN has long sought access.
So far, so good. But there's ample reason to be skeptical that the deal with the IAEA will hold—if it's even honored at all. Earlier this spring, agency officials were allowed back into Iran only to leave days later, having been prevented by the regime from conducting any substantive oversight. There's little cause to believe that the Iranian regime—which consistently has stalled, obfuscated and delayed in providing access to the international community—will come clean on its nuclear program this time out. (Indeed, just days after the purported deal with Amano, officials in Tehran reportedly are having doubts about opening Parchin, following UN discoveries of traces of even more highly-enriched uranium there.)
The returns from Baghdad have been even more meager. Iran and the "P5+1" group of nations (the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany) didn't come to terms on an agreement limiting the Iranian regime's uranium enrichment—a key point of contention between Iran and the West. In fact, regime officials have defiantly rejected the idea that they might stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, as per U.S. and European demands. Instead, all the parties managed to do was agree to meet again for more talks, now slated to take place later this month in Moscow.
That outcome, of course, isn't cost-free. It provides Iran with diplomatic breathing room, and delays—at least temporarily—the application of significant additional economic pressure on Iran by the U.S. and its allies, since Iran has already warned that further sanctions could "jeopardize" the nuclear talks now underway. Tehran, moreover, can expect a more favorable playing field in Moscow, where the Kremlin will likely provide much-needed political cover for its sometime strategic partner.
That may be fine by the White House. With the U.S. presidential election looming this Fall, the Obama administration is justifiably worried about the possibility of a diplomatic rupture, or worse, with Iran—and eager to keep talking in order to avoid one. It likewise wants to forestall unilateral military action by Israel, which has signaled in no uncertain terms that it may act alone against the Iranian regime if the West fails to make progress on resolving the current nuclear crisis. For these reasons, Washington sees negotiations as a net benefit, at least for the moment.
So, too, does Iran. A protracted negotiating track confers tremendous benefit to the Iranian regime, providing it precious time to continue work on its nuclear program and adapt its economy to better weather international sanctions.
That's precisely what it looks like Iran will receive. And it's why Iran—for all of its bluster to the contrary—is likely to remain engaged in the current round of talks with the West. Simply put, from Iran's perspective diplomacy is indeed succeeding.
It's exceedingly more difficult, though, to put a similar spin on the West's position. Having agreed to reopen talks with Tehran, the United States and its allies now find themselves locked in protracted negotiations that play to Iran's timetable even as the Islamic Republic inches closer to the bomb.
America and Europe will be hard-pressed to depict that outcome in a positive light, no matter how hard they try.