David Ignatius
Opinion writer August 21, 2012

As Israel and Iran entered this summer of confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear program, the Iranians were also conducting talks with the United States and other leading nations to seek a diplomatic alternative to war. Since then, the rumors of an impending Israeli military strike have grown almost daily, but whatever happened to the negotiations?

The answer is that the “P5+1” talks with Iran have been in recess during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but contact is expected to resume soon between the top negotiators. Talking with Iranian and U.S. experts, I don’t hear any hint of a breakthrough that would ease the war fever, although some useful new ideas have been floated.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The diplomatic track has been frustrating to U.S. officials, so far. But it remains important because the military alternative is so fraught with dangers — not least for Israel and its long-term goal of preventing the Iranians from having nuclear weapons. An Israeli military strike might set the Iranian program back several years. But it would probably shatter the international coalition against Iran, galvanize support for the mullahs at home and in the region — and thus might make Iran’s eventual acquisition of a bomb even more likely.

Because of such risks, many leaders of Israel’s national-security establishment, past and present, appear to oppose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s consideration of a military strike. Despite this internal Israeli split, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has strongly endorsed Netanyahu and chided President Obama for taking an independent U.S. position, saying at a campaign rally Monday: “The president throwing Bibi Netanyahu under the bus was totally unacceptable. Him negotiating for Israel, our friend, totally unacceptable, in my view.”

Here’s the situation in the negotiations Romney evidently dislikes: By the end of August, Catherine Ashton, the European diplomat who is the chief negotiator for the P5+1, will likely talk by phone about next steps with Saeed Jalili, the representative of Iran’s supreme leader. The possibilities include another technical meeting of experts or deputy negotiators, or a full, top-level negotiating session.

The P5+1 nations (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany) are still discussing their bargaining position. The consultations quickened last week with a trip to Beijing, Moscow and London by Wendy Sherman, the under secretary of state who is the top U.S. negotiator. The six countries agreed to continue working together despite some disagreements about tactics: “At the end of the day, we will proceed in unity,” said a senior administration official.

There remains a “significant gap between the P5+1 and Iran,” according to the U.S. official. The Iranians officially have offered only to suspend enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level, in exchange for lifting sanctions. This position is a non-starter for the United States and its negotiating partners.

Unofficially, Iranians have signaled that they would be ready to export their stockpile of 20 percent uranium and cap future enrichment at 5 percent. This comes closer to meeting U.S. concerns, but it still leaves Iran with a big stockpile of about 6,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium that could fuel a breakout — to “dash” toward a bomb. It’s this ability that most worries Israel.

An interesting bridging proposal comes from Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian negotiator who is now a visiting fellow at Princeton. He told me this week that in addition to capping enrichment at 5 percent, Iran might agree to a “zero stockpile” of this low-enriched fuel. A joint committee with the P5+1 would assess Iran’s domestic needs, and any enriched uranium would either be converted immediately to the needed fuel rods or panels, or it would be exported.

In exchange, Mousavian argues, the P5+1 would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and would gradually lift sanctions.

This intriguing proposal lacks official Iranian support, but it would address Israel’s biggest concern and would surely interest U.S. officials. Mousavian also notes Iran’s willingness to allow much wider inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into what are known as “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program. This transparency proposal would allow the IAEA to monitor any possible breakout, but U.S. officials caution that, if the Iranians decided to go for a bomb, they could simply expel the IAEA inspectors and make the dash.

Here’s a final thought, based on the all-too-real possibility that negotiations will remain deadlocked and Israel will decide to take unilateral military action. In the resulting fog of war, there will be a need for reliable communications in the Persian Gulf and a hotline with Tehran. Establishing these communications links is an urgent priority, as the rumors of war continue.

davidignatius@washpost.com