How do you say "chutzpah" in Farsi? That's the question many observers of Iranian politics must be asking in the wake of the latest, hollow round of international diplomacy over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
The two-day meeting which took place between Tehran and Western powers in Geneva in early December may have been heavy on pomp and circumstance, but it was remarkably devoid of substance. Ahead of the talks, Iranian officials had made abundantly clear that they weren't prepared to discuss the main point of discord between their government and the West—their regime's nuclear ambitions. True to their word, the dialogue that followed skirted the substantive issues relating to Iran's persistent nuclear effort, serving simply to set the stage for more in-depth discussions which are ostensibly to follow in the future.
The Obama administration, however, has been eager to depict the parlay a step forward, albeit only a tentative one. In a recent interview with the BBC, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed to Iran's willingness to talk as proof positive that U.S. and international sanctions are beginning to bite. "Iran comes to the table with a much more sober assessment of what isolation means, what the impact on their economy has been, and we hope that will cause them to have the kind of serious negotiation we're seeking," she said earnestly.
But others are increasingly skeptical that this is in fact the case. As the usually-sympathetic Washington Post put it in a scathing editorial: "There is another logical explanation for Iran's willingness to talk – that it seeks to delay further sanctions, create dissension among the United States and its allies, and distract attention from its continuing crackdown on the opposition Green movement."
Iran, in other words, is playing for time. And the Obama administration is playing right into its hands.
True to form, officials in Washington are now gearing up for the next round of talks with Tehran, which is slated to take place in late January in Istanbul. So are their Iranian counterparts, who have been busy laying down their government's diplomatic red lines. Already, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made clear that future negotiations categorically will not lead to a slowdown of his country's nuclear efforts.
All of which is bad enough. But Tehran isn't content to simply drag out its diplomatic dialogue with the West; it wants to change the terms of the debate itself. That is why, in a brazen piece of political theater, the Iranian regime has proposed the creation of a "6+1" group (encompassing the five permanent UN Security Council members, Germany and Iran itself) as a replacement for the current negotiating quintet. The scheme, Ahmadinejad himself made clear, is simply inevitable. "Iran will never compromise on the rights of its nation to nuclear fuel cycle, 20-percent uranium enrichment and construction of power plants," the Iranian president has said publicly. "The West had better cooperate with Iran on the nuclear issue." Needless to say, making Iran an equal partner in the international consensus regarding whether to apply pressure on its own nuclear program is the foreign policy equivalent of allowing the fox to guard the henhouse.
The Farsi word for "chutzpah," incidentally, is jesarat. If the latest diplomatic feints from Tehran are any indication, the Iranians have more than enough to go around.