Unraveling the secret U.S.-Iran nuclear talks

October 22, 2012

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi arrives at a meeting in Kabul. (Musadeq Sadeq -- AP)

The United States and Iran have agreed in principle to direct negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, the New York Times reported on Saturday, citing unnamed Iranian and U.S. officials. The talks would take place after the election, apparently at the Iranians' request. The story fueled wide speculation in Washington over the weekend, driven by three questions: First, is it true? Second, who leaked it? And, third, if it's true, why are the talks happening now?

Is it true?

It's not easy to gauge the report's accuracy. Both the White House and the Iranian Foreign Ministry quickly and categorically denied that they had agreed to talks. And while the Times reports Israeli "openness" to the talks, it also quotes the Israeli ambassador to the United States as discouraging such talks as "rewarding" Iran.

The case for suspecting the story might not be true boils down to the same habit of Western-Iranian misunderstanding that's long plagued diplomatic relations. "The White House was unhappy about the leak, which apparently originated with Iranian sources, then was bolstered by officials in the U.S. administration," Politico reported. Al-Monitor reporter Laura Rozen, who has long focused on Iranian nuclear negotiations, suggested on Twitter that the Times may have "misunderstood." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi "did not express more than polite interest in direct channel w/U.S. on nuclear issue. Rozen added, "think NYT chased story based on misreading of Iranians."

Another theory is that, as Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) put it, the talks are "a ploy by the Iranians" to buy time for uranium enrichment. This reading gives notably little credit to U.S. negotiators and doesn't seem to explain why Iran would agree to the secret talks in the first place, given that the Obama administration seems on track to continue emphasizing sanctions rather than a military strike through the elections.

The case for believing that the story could be true starts with taking the official denials with a grain of salt. "Among the most useful negotiations to take place right now would be U.S.-Iranian talks that are held in strict secrecy and that both governments would deny taking place," former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar wrote on his blog. "Secrecy would be useful because both sides are boxed in by their own hardline statements and by pressure from those wanting to make the lines even harder."

In other words, both Iranian and American domestic politics could kill any public talks, so secrecy would be essential. But that doesn't explain why the agreement would happen now, especially when both countries' leaderships are in question; Obama is facing a tough reelection, and Ahmadinejad is increasingly sidelined within his own government.

The other case for believing the story is, of course, that it appears in the New York Times, which as a paper is aware of the risks of getting played. Helene Cooper, the White House correspondent who co-wrote the story, said on "Meet the Press" that they'd been chasing the story since Ahmadinejad's September United Nations visit.

"He came to the meeting with journalists, started talking about how Iran is interested in getting into talks with the United States after the elections," she said. "This is something that the Obama administration has been pursuing for several years now. They’ve been open to it. Iran has not been so sure; they flip-flopped."

Who leaked it?

This is maybe tougher to answer than even the question of whether the agreement is real. This is in part because no one can decide who is best served by the leaks: Do they help the talks by preparing people for them? Do they hurt the talks by sparking domestic American and Iranian backlash? Do they make an agreement more likely because the talks have a greater air of legitimacy or less likely because the pressure is higher?

Pillar wrote on Sunday, "Speculation has ranged from the leak being an effort to torpedo bilateral negotiations to the news story instead being part of an effort by the U.S. administration to start preparing public opinion for an agreement reached through such talks."

It will be interesting to watch whether or how the article is discussed during Monday night's debate. How the candidates treat the story may say something about whether each sees it as good or bad for Obama's election chances. Is it an opportunity for him to look presidential and argue that he is forcing Iranians to the negotiating table? Or is it a political embarrassment for the president, allowing Romney to paint him as "soft" on Iran because he negotiates with Tehran rather than simply demanding it halt all nuclear progress?

The question of who leaked the story and why may never be answered, but its complexity, and the difficulty of even knowing whom the leak helps, underscore what a hall of mirrors Iranian nuclear talks have become.

Why now?

The case for why Iran would agree to the talks now is straightforward: The U.S.-led economic sanctions have devastated the country's economy over the past few months. The currency is in free-fall, likely leading to rising inflation and increasingly expensive staples such as bread and rice.

"The Iranians, in their heart of hearts, would like to get out of their conundrum," former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy told Laura Rozen.  "The sanctions have been very effective. They are beginning to really hurt."

Correction: This post originally identified Helene Cooper as diplomatic correspondent for the Times. In fact, she is a White House correspondent. The post has been updated to reflect this.

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Max Fisher | October 22, 2012