Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday May 27th, 2011
By Barrie Dunsmore
 The old joke about diplomatic correspondents was that we could stand for eight hours outside a diplomatic negotiating session, get a “no comment” from a departing official and then go and write a thousand word story.
That’s basically true because disputes between nations have to be explained in the context of the history of the relationships of the adversaries. In the case of talks involving the United States and Iran, the two have had no diplomatic relations since 1979, when radical Islamic “students” took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 65 Americans hostages for 444 days. Meantime since 1953, many Iranians have never forgiven the American CIA for overthrowing their democratic government and installing the imperious Shah. This history of enmity has been further intensified by more recent Iranian terrorism and America’s aggressive military posture in the Middle East. Given that Iran is almost surrounded by countries with nuclear weapons (Russia, India, Pakistan and Israel) one can see why it might want such weapons. Given Shiite Iran’s hostility to Israel and Sunni Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Israeli and Saudi fear of Iran as a nuclear power is certainly understandable.

The results of the meeting this past week between Iran and representatives from the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany did not live up to some overly optimistic expectations. But it is too early to dismiss these negotiations as a failure. What many journalists need to learn is that diplomacy is a process – not a one day event. It is haggling to achieve your basic bottom line demands, while trying to divine if or how far your opponents can be moved from theirs. This doesn’t conform to the needs of the 24 hour news cycle. And it obviously doesn’t fit with the world of twitter and tweets. Historically, important talks take time to unfold, as was true of the ones I have covered.

-Negotiations to end the Viet Nam War began in Paris in 1968 and dragged on until 1973.
-In May of 1973 Henry Kissinger spent a month shuttling back and forth between Israel and Syria to get the two sides’ forces to move, in some cases just a few hundred yards. Failure would have led to a new shooting war that could have escalated to nuclear confrontation between Americans and Russians.
-In September of 1978, President Jimmy Carter kept Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David for thirteen days, secretly negotiating the Camp David Accords which led to the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty. But Carter still had to go back to the Middle East a few months later to actually get the treaty nailed down. (And this was a case were all the parties wanted essentially the same thing.)
This was how the New York Times began its report on the most recent negotiations in Baghdad. “Iran and six world powers ended two days of difficult talks on Iran’s disputed nuclear program on Thursday with no clear signs of progress, but they agreed to reconvene for more negotiations in Moscow next month.”
That was playing it completely straight – unlike some cable news channels. After just the first day several anchors wrote off the talks as a failure, apparently having been taken in by unrealistic expectations. Iran contributed to this by playing the expectations game as part of its negotiating strategy. On the eve of this latest round of talks, the Iranians made a tentative agreement with the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency that suggested they were open to some IAEA inspections of their nuclear program in areas they had previously firmly refused.
If this becomes a real agreement that would be significant, But what Iran hoped to get from this tentative “concession” was a quick counter- concession from the world powers to begin easing the stringent economic sanctions which are causing huge problems for the Iranian economy. The six powers said not yet, and in fact, even tougher sanctions by Europe and the U.S. are scheduled to begin in July. Evidently there will be no easing of these sanctions unless Iran agrees to stop enriching its nuclear fuel to a level of 20%, which is close to what’s needed to make a nuclear bomb.
The details of any deal are bound to be difficult, especially finding a formula that concedes Iran’s basic right to reprocess uranium, but not to make nuclear weapons. So the current state of negotiations boils down to this. If Iran agrees to stop making weapons grade uranium - and to international inspections to verify this - the current punishing sanctions would be lifted on a schedule tied to Iran’s actual compliance. But if there is no significant progress toward such a deal in the coming few months, Israel may well make good on its threat to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. The widespread war and world economic chaos that would almost certainly follow such an attack, are of sufficient consequence that all the parties have a vital interest in keeping that from happening.
So even though this past week’s talks failed to produce any breakthrough, as the European Union’s Catherine Ashton put it, “Significant problems remain,” but “what we have now is some common ground and a meeting in place where we can take that further forward.”
That next meeting is scheduled for June 18th and 19th in Moscow. Time will be running short by then, and the stakes for all us are enormously high. But no one, including the participants, can accurately predict what will happen next. So put expectations aside. We will see how things stand after the Moscow meeting.
It is worth noting that in the summer of 1914, World War I- a totally unnecessary war that became one of history’s most destructive conflicts - could have been avoided. It is to be devoutly hoped that a century from now, historians won’t be writing about another devastating, unnecessary war that could yet begin in the summer of 2012.


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